Wilson Harris

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Anthony Boxill (essay date June 1971)

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SOURCE: Boxill, Anthony. “Wilson Harris's Palace of the Peacock: A New Dimension in West Indian Fiction.” CLA Journal 14, no. 4 (June 1971): 380–86.

[In the following essay, Boxill argues that, with Palace of the Peacock, Harris brought a new type of novel to the body of West Indian fiction—the “poetical novel.”]

When Wilson Harris' Palace of the Peacock was published in 1960, a new kind of novel was added to the repertoire of West Indian fiction—the poetical novel. This does not mean that poetry has been lacking in the West Indian novel. There are passages of lyrical beauty in so many of the novels that it would be tedious to list them. George Lamming is often referred to as primarily a poet who has turned to prose. Indeed, there is much evidence of this in his novels, but although poetic passages abound in Lamming not one of his novels leaves the reader with overall impression that he has just read a poem. In fact, Lamming's occasional long-windedness is the opposite of what one expects of poetic compactness and compression.

Edgar Mittelholzer, in his two novels, Latticed Echoes (1960) and Thunder Returning (1961), did make an attempt to create poetical novels, but the motifs which are intended to give a poetical effect are so arbitrary and become so involved when put together that the general effect of the works is one of confusion rather than of clarity which one expects of poetry.

Vic Reid's The Leopard (1958) came closest to being a poetical novel before the appearance of Palace of the Peacock. It had compactness and clarity. Besides, the use of imagery and symbolism, and rhythm of the prose was lyrical in its effect. This novel was frequently referred to by the reviewers as a tour de force. However, in his effort to maintain a style of prose-poetry and to create original images, Reid sometimes forgets his subject matter. Kingsley Amis's criticism of the novel is very valid: “Only in the closing pages, when the wound becomes the centre of the victim's world, does style show off subject-matter to advantage …”1 This inability to fuse form and content detracts from the poetic effect of the novel.

In West Indian literature, if one wants to find a novel which is similar in effect to Virginia Woolf's The Waves, one must turn to the novels of Wilson Harris, the first of which is Palace of the Peacock.

Most readers of the West Indian novel are likely to agree that the novels of Wilson Harris are more difficult to understand than those of any other novelist. Various reviewers have made various attempts to interpret the novels, but none has been very clear in his explanations. There may be two reasons for this: either Harris is profound and complex in his thought and therefore difficult to understand, or his writing is vague and obscure and therefore does not communicate his ideas. Some critics do feel that he does not make enough effort to communicate: “The Guianese novelist Wilson Harris, for instance, draws heavily upon Guianese scenery and Guianese lore. And these are wrapped in so personal a symbolism that communication is only partial.”2 This may be true, but there is a suggestiveness about Harris' writing which implies more than obscurity.

Harris' first novel, Palace of the Peacock, has the rich suggestiveness of a poem. The imagery and symbolism is vivid but completely original. The language has a lyrical quality which frequently suggests to the reader that it is more than mere prose. This facet of Harris' writing can best...

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be illustrated by quoting two examples of his descriptive passages about Guiana jungles and rivers. He is without compare in his ability to suggest the mystery and the ageless splendour of the jungle. He does this, furthermore, without long-winded descriptive passages to hold up his narrative or the expression of his ideas. Harris is the most economical of West Indian writers; none of his books is much more than one hundred and fifty pages long. Note how in the following passages he is quick to relate his observations to the impressions of his characters:

The trees on the bank were clothed in an eternity of autumnal colour—equally removed from the green of youth as from the iron-clad winter of age—a new and enduring spiritual summer of russet and tropical gold whose tints had been tenderly planted in the bed of the stream. The sun veined these mythical shadows and leaves in our eye.3

In this brief description he also manages to refer to and illustrate one of his most important themes, that of time and eternity. A beautiful description of a waterfall is also related to Harris' theme of eternity:

The river was calm as the day before, innocent and golden as a dream. The boat ran smoothly until the stream seemed to froth and bubble a little against it. A change was at hand in the sky of water everyone sensed and knew. The vessel seemed to hasten and the river grew black, painted with streaks of a foaming white. The noise of a thunderous waterfall began to dawn on their ear above the voice of their engine. They saw in the distance at last a thread of silver lightening that expanded and grew into a veil of smoke. They drew as near as they could and stopped under the cloud. Right and left grew the universal wall of cliff they knew, and before them the highest waterfall they had ever seen moved and still stood upon the escarpment. They were plainly astonished at the immaculate bridal veil falling motionlessly from the river's tall brink. The cliffs appeared to box and imprison the waterfall. A light curious fern grew out of the stone, and pearls were burning and smoking from the greenest brightest dwarfs and trees they remembered.

Steps and balconies had been nailed with abandon from bottom to top making hazardous ladders against the universal walls. These were wreathed in misty arms blowing from the waterfall.4

The reader is quick to attribute special symbolic significance to this waterfall, for as the characters in the novel begin to ascend the face of the cliff next to the waterfall they see visions which are definitely religious and Christian in their evocation. Donne, the central character, sees visions of a carpenter, of a woman and a child, and of a wounded stag. These pictures leave one with the impression that it is through Christ that one must approach the Palace of the Peacock, for it is towards the Palace of the Peacock that Donne is climbing, even if he does not realize it consciously. When he reaches the top of the waterfall he becomes physically blind, but this permits him to see clearly through the spiritual eye of his soul:

I saw the tree in the distance wave its arms and walk when I looked at it through the spiritual eye of the soul. First it shed its leaves sudden and swift as if the gust of the wind that blew had ripped it almost bare. The bark and wood turned to lightening flesh and the sun which had been suspended from its head rippled and broke into stars that stood where the shattered leaves had been in the living wake of the storm. The enormous starry dress it now wore spread itself all around into a full majestic gown from which emerged the intimate column of a musing neck, face, and hands, and twinkling feet. The stars became peacock's eyes, and the great tree of flesh and blood swirled into another stream that sparkled with divine features where the neck and the hands and the feet had been nailed.

This was the palace of the universe and the windows of the soul looked out and in.5

It would seem therefore that the Peacock is a symbol of Christ, and that the Palace of the Peacock is meant by Harris to represent the Kingdom of Heaven. It is not surprising that Harris should choose a bird to represent Christ, for many poets have found that the ability which birds have to fly through the air is suggestive of the spiritual. Yeats' “The Wild Swans at Coole” comes immediately to mind. Besides, Hopkins in “The Windhover” had used a hawk as a symbol of Christ. Harris is familiar with the work of both these poets, for he takes quotations from their poetry as epigraphs for his novels.

By surmounting the waterfall, Donne achieves the Kingdom of Heaven: he enters upon eternity. In his fifth novel, Heartland, Harris gives his clearest statement on what the waterfall symbolizes:

Petra was fast approaching the brink of the fall, when the sleeping river loses its poise and drops like a smoking breath down the face of the Kaieteuran escarpment; here nature had long established—and history had now slowly begun to read and confirm—both the desolate link and the message of a divided reality, the displacement of man like river-bed from river, watershed and island from the heart of a continent.6

As Harris sees it, man has been separated from his natural habitat and transposed into a place foreign to him. This place is the world of time and space. Man's physical attributes, for example his vision, far from being an asset to him, merely serve to hinder his more perfect spiritual eye. For this reason, death is a release, as Wilson Harris sees it. Time also places a restriction on the nature of man, who was meant to live in eternity. Consequently, Wilson Harris attempts to ignore time and to press everything into an eternal present: “Time had no meaning. The room was as old as a cave and as new as a study.”7 For this reason the Guyana jungle, which seems never to change, is a perfect symbol of timelessness for Harris.

Palace of the Peacock is an account of a trip upriver towards the waterfall of a crew of dead men. Since time does not pass in Harris' novels, death has very little significance. People die and continue to exist. In this novel, it suits Harris to use dead men as his central characters, for in this way they can stand aside and see the briefness and insignificance of their lives in time as compared with their lives in eternity:

Had we made a new problematical start—a pure and imaginary game, I told myself in despair—only to strip ourselves of all logical sequence and development and time? and to fasten vividly on our material life as if it were a passing fragment and fantasy while the curious nebulosity of ourselves stood stubborn and permanent? and as if every solid force and reason and distraction were the cruel stream that mirrored our everlastingness?8

The crew is made up of a number of men of different racial origins—Negro, European, Indian, American Indian—who possibly are meant to represent the various races in the population of Guyana. Sometimes the author distinguishes them clearly by their qualities, and at other times he seems to fuse them and they become merely mankind. Donne, the most definitely characterised, seems to represent the European whose philosophy of life is to rule the world. Harris manages to imply that this is a misdirection of human energies, for the world is not man's natural home. The trip upriver towards the Palace of the Peacock proves this, for the crew, without realising it, is drawn by its nature towards an eternal life.

Wilson Harris is the most philosophical of West Indian novelists, and it is good that in this period, while the other writers are concerned with purely social and practical problems, such as racial prejudice and colonialism, at least one writer should take the time to think about the deeper meaning of human existence, to think about such things as the nature of man, eternity and time, and religion. Wilson Harris' insight gives additional depth to West Indian fiction.

It is remarkable that in assessing English fiction two distinguished novelists should make very similar observations. John Updike, the American novelist, makes the following comment:

Adversely, let me say that no literature is as non-existential as the English. That is, the Englishman does not really seem to be aware of any intrinsic problem in human existence. It can be all patched up and muddled through. Hence the survival of satire—an instrument for piecemeal correction. Hence the extraordinary fluency with which novels of social circumstances are still produced—as if society were the universe. Hence the virtual absence of radically formal experimentation. … Hence, finally, the uniquely sweet and seductive voice, which would call us back from the edge of the abyss in whose depths answers might lie. …9

Nadine Gordimer has the same criticism to make:

The real gap that I am conscious of in my expropriated literature is the lack of novelist-philosophers. … But where is the British equivalent of a Camus—not just the individual genius, but the writer with the sense of the past (unwistfully) and the future (unprophetically) present in himself, and a cool purpose, born of real passion for life, to explore its possibilities at this stage of half understood, totally threatened human existence. … Among my contemporaries in British writing there is a lot of lively blind dissatisfaction—hitting out for the hell of it at telly civilisation or shying (again) at that apparently Welfare State-proof old coconut, the H Barrier. From outside, however admirably well done, and sometimes witty, it all seems rather parochial.10

It is in this respect that West Indian writing has both gained and suffered from its association with English Literature. The West Indian writer has learned to criticise his society by ridiculing and attacking its weakness. This is good. But the West Indian writer has seldom delved into themes which are not social and pragmatic. This does not mean that all West Indian writing has been parochial, even though much of it is specifically about West Indian territories. Surely, themes such as slavery, colonialism, and racial prejudice are variations of universal themes, such as man's inhumanity to man, the exploitation of the weak by the strong, and the corroding effect of materialism.

Nevertheless, it is because of the strong limiting influence of English Literature upon West Indian literature that a writer such as Wilson Harris, who is willing to undertake radical “formal experimentation,” is so welcome in West Indian writing. Here, at last, is a philosopher-poet who is not content merely to criticise social imperfections but who explores more fundamental problems of human nature.


  1. Kingsley Amis, “Fresh Winds from the West,” Spectator (May 2, 1958), 565.

  2. W. I. Carr, “Reflections on the Novel in the British Caribbean,” Queen's Quarterly, LXX (Winter, 1964), 588.

  3. Wilson Harris, Palace of the Peacock (London, 1960), p. 76.

  4. Ibid., pp. 128–129.

  5. Ibid., p. 146.

  6. Wilson Harris, Heartland (London, 1964), p. 70.

  7. Palace of the Peacock, p. 133.

  8. Ibid., p. 54.

  9. John Updike, “A Comment,” TLS (June 4, 1964), 473.

  10. Nadine Gordimer, “Notes of an Expropriator,” TLS (June 4, 1964), 482.


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Wilson Harris 1921-

(Full name Theodore Wilson Harris; has also written under the pseudonym Kona Waruk) Guyanese novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Harris's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 25.

A highly regarded figure in contemporary Caribbean literature who has written over twenty novels, Harris is best known for two major series, The Guyana Quartet (1985) and The Carnival Trilogy (1993). Harris defies narrative convention and recognizable genre categories in his works which blur the boundaries between external reality and internal states of mind. His narratives are complex and highly imaginative works, interweaving conventional plot with experimental fictional elements often described as poetic, mystical, or surrealistic. Most of Harris's novels are set in the cities, villages, and Amazonian jungles of Guyana. These settings convey the region's history of European conquest and colonization, and Harris's characters include such diverse representatives of Guyana as the descendents of the aboriginal Amerindians, the slaves brought from Africa and India, and the European colonizers. His frequent use of symbolism is drawn from a rich cultural history of Amerindian folk legend, classical mythology, Christian iconography and allegory, Jungian psychoanalytic theory, and English literature. Harris is celebrated as a postcolonial writer whose works have wide appeal for addressing universal human questions. His major themes include redemption, the role of the imagination, the ambiguity of language, the forging of identity, and the nature of artistic creation. While there are numerous darker elements in his fiction, Harris's works ultimately convey a positive, life-affirming outlook. Recognized as an important literary and cultural critic, Harris has also published commentary in several collections of essays.

Biographical Information

Harris was born March 24, 1921, in New Amsterdam, British Guiana (now Guyana), of Amerindian, African, and English descent. His father was an insurance agent. From 1934 to 1939, Harris attended Queen's College in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. Upon graduation, he studied land surveying and geomorphology until 1942 when he began working as a government surveyor, leading expeditions into the Amazonian forests in the interior of Guyana. His familiarity with the geography and cultural diversity of Guyana has contributed to the content and themes of many of his novels. In 1945, Harris married Cecily Carew, but later divorced. In 1959, he moved to London, England, where he met and married the Scottish writer Margaret Burns. From this point, Harris began to focus on fiction writing, publishing his first novel, Palace of the Peacock, in 1960. During the 1970s and 1980s, Harris lectured as a guest or visitor at many colleges and universities throughout the world, including State University of New York at Buffalo, Yale University, University of California, and University of Texas at Austin, as well as Mysore University in India and University of Aarhus in Denmark. Harris also served as writer-in-residence at many colleges and universities, including University of West Indies, University of Toronto, and Newcastle University, Australia. Harris won the Guyana National Prize for Fiction in 1987.

Major Works

Harris's earliest published works include the poetry volumes Fetish (1951), The Well and the Land (1952), and Eternity to Season (1954). The Guyana Quartet is comprised of Harris's first four novels: Palace of the Peacock,The Far Journey of Oudin (1961), The Whole Armour (1962), and The Secret Ladder (1963). In this series, the landscape, history, and culture of Guyana become symbols for the landscape of the mind. In Palace of the Peacock, the unnamed narrator and his brother, Donne, begin a journey through Guyana, and ultimately experience a type of rebirth. Donne is a cruel plantation owner, whose workers have fled to escape his oppressive treatment of them. The narrator, who is considered a dreamer, goes with Donne in search of the workers. Led by Donne's female companion, the two brothers embark on a journey of self-discovery in which they experience a series of visions. The Far Journey of Oudin is set in an East Indian community in Guyana and recounts the complex history of the family of Oudin, a recently deceased man who emerges as the hero of the story. Oudin, a servant, flees with Beti to save her from the unwanted advances of another man. Beti becomes pregnant with Oudin's child and the two forge a contract to relinquish their baby to another man when it is born. After Oudin's death, it is discovered that Beti had swallowed the contract in order to keep her child. The Far Journey to Oudin has a more conventional plot and is less dream-like than Palace of the Peacock.The Whole Armour focuses on Magda, a prostitute in a brothel, and her son, Cristo, who is accused of murder and flees for his life. He is joined by Sharon, with whom he conceives a child. Cristo is eventually captured and sentenced to death. The Whole Armour contains a more realistic narrative, eschewing the blurring of dream-states and reality which characterizes Palace of the Peacock.The Secret Ladder also features a primarily realistic plot. Told by a third-person narrator, the story revolves around Russell Fenwick, a government surveyor who is sent to a remote village to carry out an assignment. Fenwick becomes involved in the cultural and political struggles of the ethnically diverse population, which hampers his ability to complete his job. Heartland (1964) includes characters from Palace of the Peacock and serves as a sequel to The Guyana Quartet.

The Eye of the Scarecrow (1965) is one of Harris's most unconventional narratives. The novel is set in Georgetown, Guyana, and the Amazonian rainforest. The story unfolds as a series of diary entries written by the narrator. Events are narrated in non-chronological order as the narrator recounts a quest with a character called L—— for a mythical four-gated city. The story eschews conventional linear narration with a series of dream-like associations and memories. The characters themselves begin to fragment and meld together, so that they become interchangeable as well as indistinguishable. In The Eye of the Scarecrow, Harris invented a narrative presence, referred to as “It,” which transcends all story-telling conventions. The “scarecrow” of the title functions as a metaphor for language and the process of writing. The Waiting Room (1967) achieves even greater degrees of abstraction, narrative fragmentation, and metaphorical meaning than Harris's previous novels. The story is told through the diary of Susan Forrestal, a woman who is blind despite having undergone several eye operations. She and her husband are killed in an explosion, and her diary is found among the debris. The diary focuses on Susan's various eye surgeries and her memories of a former lover who disappeared into the forest years earlier. Tumatumari (1968) interweaves conventional storytelling with elements of Harris's more experimental narrative devices. After Prudence suffers a mental breakdown, she is nursed by Rakka, her Amerindian servant. Prudence's memories of the past are narrated through dream-states and varied levels of consciousness. The image of the mask which serves as a metaphor for identity is an important concept running throughout the novel.

In Ascent to Omai (1970), Victor embarks on a quest in the jungle to seek a land claim made by his father, Adam. In the jungle, Victor is bitten by a tarantula and enters a realm of unconscious childhood memories. Black Marsden (1972), a relatively conventional narrative, is set in Scotland and features Clive Goodrich, who becomes wealthy after successfully gambling in soccer pools. His meets a beggar known as Doctor Marsden and subsequently undertakes an internal journey into his imagination and his dreams. Companions of the Day and Night (1975) features central characters from Black Marsden. Clive Goodrich, the fictional “editor” of Companions of the Day and Night, constructs a complex narrative from a compilation of papers, diaries, and artwork produced by a figure known as Idiot Nameless. Goodrich recounts the journey of Idiot Nameless into Mexico during the Easter season. The novel interweaves references to Christian iconography with Mexican history. In Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness (1977), da Silva is a painter living in London. The narrative, which emerges from da Silva's paintings, addresses the theme of redemption through love. In this work, Harris makes use of strong metaphorical allusions and striking visual imagery. The novel also uses sketches and graphs to illustrate central ideas within the narrative. The Tree of the Sun (1978) serves as a sequel to Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness. The story in The Angel at the Gate (1982) is presented as the “automatic writing” of Mary Stella Holiday, who undergoes hypnosis by Father Joseph Marsden. The narration is split between two characters, Mary and Stella. Other characters in the novel are drawn from the song “Mack the Knife.”

The Carnival Trilogy is comprised of Carnival (1985), The Infinite Rehearsal (1987), and The Four Banks of the River of Space (1990). This trilogy has been compared to Homer's Odyssey.Carnival, one of Harris's longest novels, traces the life and death of Everyman Masters, a South American plantation owner. The narrator, Jonathan Weyl, meets Everyman Masters on a ship headed for England and discovers that their family histories are intimately intertwined. Carnival addresses several major themes of Harris's earlier works, such as redemption and the imagination. The Infinite Rehearsal is an autobiography of a fictional character, Robin Redbreast Glass. The novel interweaves passages from Harris's earlier novels with allusions from such writers as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, and William Shakespeare. Resurrection at Sorrow Hill (1993) is set in an insane asylum where the inmates believe they are historical figures such as Montezuma, Leonardo da Vinci, Socrates, Buddha, and Karl Marx. Two inmates, Hope and Butterfly, fall in love and are eventually shot by D'eath, Butterfly's jealous lover. Jonestown (1996) focuses on two fictional survivors of the Jonestown massacre that took place in Guyana in 1978. The narrative interweaves elements from the incident with the historical fall of the ancient Mayan culture in pre-Columbian South America. The historical context of The Dark Jester (2001) is the conquest of the Incas by the Spanish in 1532. The narrator, known as the Dreamer, engages in extended conversations with a mysterious figure called the Dark Jester.

Critical Reception

Critics have agreed that Harris's abstract, experimental narratives are difficult to read, often describing his work as dense, complex, or opaque. Many critics, however, have asserted that although reading Harris's work is challenging, it is rewarding. Harris has been lauded for his exploration of the themes of conquest and colonization and the struggles of colonized peoples. Reviewers also have noted his skillful tapping of the geography and history of Guyana as a metaphor for the landscape of the mind. Many critics have declared that his novels are an attempt to express truths about the way people experience reality through the lens of the imagination. Some commentators have faulted Harris's novels for nonlinear plot lines, which are difficult to follow, and for his preference of internal perceptions over external realities. Other critics have faulted Harris's characterizations, viewing them as fragmented and unconventional. Harris's use of language has been described as poetic, and many critics applaud what they feel to be a rhythmic, musical flow in his prose. Many critics have praised Harris for his ultimately positive world view as expressed in both his fiction and his literary criticism. He has also been recognized for his rich array of cultural and literary references. Critics have frequently extolled Harris's extensive use of recurring symbols and metaphors throughout his fiction. Commenting on his nonfiction, several reviewers have noted that Harris's essays push the boundaries of traditional literary criticism, just as his fiction pushes the limits of the novel genre. Several detractors have considered Harris's essays to be incomprehensible, but others contend that his vision is important in examining issues such as colonialism, multiculturalism, and the possibility for a truly global literature.

Joyce Sparer Adler (essay date autumn 1973)

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SOURCE: Adler, Joyce Sparer. “Wilson Harris and Twentieth-Century Man.” New Letters 40, no. 1 (autumn 1973): 49–61.

[In the following essay, Sparer discusses Harris's complex use of language, symbolism, and multiple levels of consciousness to create “a vision of the possibility of a new conception of man by man in this age of humanity's deepest crisis and disunity.”]

“Dear Reader, (THE JUDGE WROTE HALF IN THE MARGIN OF HIS BOOK AND HALF ON A VACANT CARD). My intention, in part, is to repudiate the vicarious novel … where the writer … 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.” So begins a letter from the novelist/judge through whom Wilson Harris speaks in Ascent to Omai. It concludes with a reference to the undertaking the writer does believe in: “the formidable creative task of digesting and translating our age.”

From bits like this in the novels and from Harris's essays and talks, we grasp that he does not want to write simplifications of individual experience from some one-sided point of view. His extraordinary aim is to create in his art an equation in language of the many interacting levels of human consciousness, to draw up from its depths a vision of the possibility of a new conception of man by man in this age of humanity's deepest crisis and disunity. In working towards this aim he has developed a highly symbolic language which has become more and more different from ordinary language as the novels go on. Each word in a Harris novel counts, like an essential brush stroke in a painting, an indispensable note in a complicated musical composition, or an unalterable sign in a mathematical or chemical formula. His art, then, is inevitably difficult, open to many approaches by the reader, saying different things to different people. One reader or critic may look at it through the window of myth, another of mysticism, another of political, philosophical or psychological theory, another of use of language, and another of aspects of the imagination. Infinitely many windows on the universe of Wilson Harris must exist. Since that universe resembles in its complexity the universe in which we live, and since it is in constant process of re-creation, no one approach can give a true sense of what the totality contains and implies. But taken all together the interpretations constitute a fellowship of critical imaginations which, as it grows and interacts with Harris's own critical theory, may serve to reveal—to the degree that anything outside the actual fiction can—more of what is involved in his integrated thought and art. My present contribution to this critical fellowship will be to focus on what comes through to me most clearly in the work as a whole—his response to our age: his response to twentieth-century Guyana and to the twentieth-century world and his close relation to some of the ways of thinking and some basic theories of twentieth-century science.

When the English critic F. R. Leavis described the poet as the man most alive in his time, he could not have imagined a Wilson Harris, but—with the modification I think Harris would make of this idea—it seems an apt description of him. The modification would be this: that an age is not a discrete and static thing to be caught and grasped, but is part of a tide arising in the past and always moving toward a future already forming within it. To be alive in one's time, then, would be to have a sense of both the time and the tide.

Guyana was the scene of Harris's contact with our age for thirty-eight years. Everything in his novels, even so abstract a subject as the nature of human consciousness, as in The Eye of the Scarecrow, or the relationship of dialectical opposites, as in The Waiting Room, or the seeing of invisibilities as in the novel set outside of Guyana, Black Marsden, is related, I think, to his response to the human situation in Guyana as he knew it during those years, or as he knew of it in the years since 1959 when he went to live in England. It is a land of many separations—of race from race, of old from new, of rural areas from town, of coast from interior, of country from continent, of privilege from unprivilege, and often of one aspect of the individual personality from the other. A united Independence movement after World War II lasted long enough to arouse in many a yearning for unity and the creative things that could come of it. Then, after its electoral victory in 1953, it split. The violent “disturbances” of 1962, 1963 and 1964, mainly between those whose ancestors were brought from Africa and those whose parents and grandparents came as indentured labor from India, made the divisions wider and feelings more set and bitter.

It was in Guyana that the predicament of modern man impressed itself upon Wilson Harris. In spite of the fact that jungles and savannahs may seem to us out of this world, Guyana has in this century and especially since World War II been very much a crossroads of the world. It was there that Harris, in seeking a way out of the predicament of twentieth-century man, found in the landscape of the interior both a metaphor for the interior of the person and symbols from nature to represent underlying elements in man's predicament. Rivers, rocks, waterfalls, become symbols: sometimes of frozen conceptions and division and sometimes of illumination, transformation, and unity. Harris's first published work, the poems Eternity to Season printed privately in Guyana in 1954, is revealingly subtitled “Poems of Separation and Reunion.”

The resemblance between the Guyanese predicament and the general predicament of man in the modern world is plain, though the particular factors that go into the dilemma of each are not identical. “Separation” is also the key word in regard to the world today—ever more so, ironically, Wilson Harris says somewhere, as the world supposedly grows smaller. All of Harris's novels imply the world. The early ones do this implicitly in the sense that they deal with man, not with Guyanese man uniquely. The later ones deal explicitly with the world and man in the twentieth century, whether the scene is Guyana, Brazil, Scotland, or some unnamed city of vehicles, pavement and shop windows far from Guyana where most of The Waiting Room appears to be located.

Even Palace of the Peacock, which is so visually a depiction of Guyana's interior, is about man in a world where the various parts of himself are divided from, and forgotten by, each other, in generation after generation. The action is a dream of what could be, the vision coming at the end of a reverse voyage upstream to the source of life, to the original creative, imaginative force in man—a remembering, that is, of what it means to be man. What happens in Palace of the Peacock in death has meaning only for life. The unity which man, represented by the crew, had been forever seeking, the self-fulfillment in the reunion of the various parts of himself, had always been his to take and make part of life; man has eternally possessed this potentiality.

As early as The Far Journey of Oudin there are echoes, not only suggested but spoken, of the atomic age. Passages link the events in rural Guyana to the state of the world. Ram says,

“Don't worry yourself unduly, Mohammed. Everybody story always look bad when they start trotting out misfortune. You passing through a terrible lonely trial of strength and you mustn't feel bad if you don't know how to face the whole story. The world is powder keg, man. Why the newspapers say communists penetrating this country from Russia and everybody is to be called ‘comrade.’”

“What you mean?”

“I mean you family is not the only one dying out, Mohammed. You is not the only man frighten of being lonely and disinherit in the future. The other day,” Ram continued, “look what happen. We talking international story of ‘comrades’ so let we talk.” He saw Mohammed was leaning towards him. “Korea—a country just like this I would say”—he waved his hand generously—“split in half, man. What a mix-up family story. God know who is killing who. You is not the only one in this new family trouble. And what happening to you is private, plain AND ordinary compared to that.”

Whatever Ram's reason for saying these things, the author's reason for having him introduce these matters is to relate the characters and events of the novel to the world.

Tumatumari deals specifically with the contradictions of the twentieth century. Here the “drama of consciousness” takes place within the mind and memory of Prudence, this novel's symbol of the soul of man in the last part of the twentieth century. In a time of personal breakdown she puts together the story and meaning of her father, Henry Tenby, and of her husband, Roi Solman. The former represents the twentieth century between the two world wars, and the latter represents it from World War II to his death in 1967, the year the novel was written. In descending into the well of the past, Prudence finds what has gone into her own making. Just after World War I, her father had fallen in love with the golden “muse of the century,” who attracted him with her “scent of the chase.” Though she gave an illusion of beauty and wealth, she was really hungry inside, like the seemingly-rich century, and in this respect she was like the woman the father eventually marries. Prudence is first conceived by her father, years before her actual birth, as he is shopping for his “mask of a lifetime” in the “Brothel of Masks” where flesh and blood are not valued and imagination is traded for gold. His conception of her is of a very narrow prudence. He will sacrifice everything for material security. A historian, he vows silence to protect the welfare of his future family. He hides things in history that are unacceptable in ruling circles as he hides his dark-skinned son when company comes. The son is eventually killed in the riots of 1962. A dark-skinned grandchild is also sacrificed because of Tenby's idolatry of imposed values. And Tenby himself is sacrificed. He dies of a heart attack after a “collision” on the road. His imagination, on which he has kept a rein all his life, takes over right before his death, and Prudence sees him with his mask on top, his real, agonized face emerging beneath it. After his death Prudence finds manuscripts which contain his suppressed thoughts.

Prudence's husband follows a similar course. He is an engineer who exploits the Amerindians even though he sees them as the conscience of the age. Like her father, Prudence's husband keeps a rein on his imagination and compassion. He hides behind sardonic humor. Clowning absurdity is his fetish against evil. He too sacrifices himself and others in the name of Prudence. In her recollections of her husband Prudence sees his role in history as that of both hunter and hunted. He is in pursuit of, and pursued by, contradictions. She comes to see him as having been doomed in one sense, “Doomed to fall … to collide … to be decapitated like an outworn model. To be sublime, however—a forerunner—an outrider of storm … For the pith and core of his sun lay in illuminating a structure of relationships.” If mankind is to reconceive itself, it will be because it will learn so much from this age, from the contradictions which reveal its needs and unrealized potentialities.

Prudence has lost her child. It is as if there can be no future mankind capable of survival if life is to be no more than an extension of the primitive past, the still-primitive present—primitive in that it sees things in extremes, incapable of sensing that it is possible to bridge the gap by fruitful association, thus bringing forth new forms now “bound in subjection,” as Harris says elsewhere.

In the end Prudence's old ideas break down. She sees the possibility of conceiving herself anew, this time as prudence in a new fully human sense. Tumatumari ends with the thought that mankind can play a new game, “Game of the conception. The great game.”

Like Harris's work as a whole, Ascent to Omai could be entitled “Of Time and This Time.” A drawing by the judge of horizons which widen in his personal memory hints also at significant moments of transition in the history of mankind. Twentieth-century man, looking back to trace the genealogy of his age, finds that “repression, depression, oppression”—and hence catastrophe—have piled up, and now it is raining blood. Now we are in an age of “global civil war,” of non-feeling (the crime against humanity), of uncreative “heights of the banal”—an age in which all are slaves to something, and security is a toy of the manufacturers of unfreedom.” The novel contains and also is an omen of a crash. Will man heed the sign and his own intuition, remember back to “the womb of mercy from which he had sprung” and be reborn as his own savior?

In the latest novel, Black Marsden, twentieth-century civilization is at the heart of the book. It is on trial for the “nightmare body of wealth” it has accumulated. Nature, earlier times and other cultures have showered it with “gifts, resources, materials beyond the wildest dreams of societies in earlier centuries. Its technological hubris has invited a backlash from those cultures which had given all they possessed and from ‘nature’ which had been drained of so much.” It is the age of the consumer, ingesting all, digesting nothing, choking on its wealth. Pressures have built up across generations of disease, starvation, alarming pollution, overpopulation. To one part of man in this age, the other part is invisible though it comes within his range of physical sight, either directly or by means of the camera. It is an age when “millions are eclipsed at starvation point or vanished in Hiroshima.” Such things happen in a barren desert of human consciousness; as Marsden says, “Without the desert in which life has become meaningless or extinct, where would we research our A-Bombs?” We have not learned from the “endless oscillations between extremes in the past,” and so we follow the same fruitless pattern of uprising followed by repression, repression followed by uprising, the “rat-race of history.” Looking at this from the viewpoint of man as man, nothing truly revolutionary has happened for centuries. Nothing really new has been conceived. And the twentieth century is the Dark Ages still. At the end of the novel Clive Goodrich refuses to be made into an instrument of this endlessly repetitious past. He is left standing “alone, utterly alone, as upon a post-hypnotic threshold,” like every other Wilson Harris representation of modern man. He is ready to move out of the fixed “charmed circles” of imposed thought, “to opt for life as a never-ending river of sweetness, fountain of love.” So Black Marsden, like the earlier novels, only more explicitly, is about the crisis and trial of the imagination of man in the twentieth century. Like them it develops in fiction the idea of modern man presented openly in the essays, that is—and I am stringing along phrases from the essays now—man in whose psyche there is a great cleavage between the camps and races of himself, who stands “on the brink of a great change or equally great disaster,” who must arrive through a drama enacted in his consciousness at a vision of “how weak is the classical architecture of the world and how terrible is the necessity for a new architecture.” This vision is the necessary prelude to a new architecture and a new more human being whom man himself must conceive and create. In this respect, all of Harris's novels are preludes, preludes to action, for the implication is that until the new conception of what is needed comes, no truly significant, no truly revolutionary action or change will be possible.

There is a special aspect of our age to which Wilson Harris is most alive, and that is twentieth-century science. His own imagination is one which is both scientific and poetic. The large general aim of twentieth-century science is in large measure his aim. His approach to problems is very much like the approaches of modern science. And specific theories in various sciences seem to have affected him and his art.

Many times over he implies that the solution of the problem of transforming man's consciousness, and hence human existence, requires the contribution of both science and art. “Man will never pass beyond prehistoric conditions until all his gods have failed, and their failure opens up the necessity for self-knowledge and for the scientific understanding of his environment,” he writes in the essay, “Form and Realism in the West Indian Artist.” Ascent to Omai speaks of science and art as agencies one of the other. In Tumatumari art and science are “overlapping spheres.” Tradition and the West Indian Novel and The Eye of the Scarecrow both make reference to the “poetry of science.”

This appreciation of science by an outstandingly creative artist is in itself a significant contribution to the thinking of our day which all too often equates science with the narrowest technology and thinks of it as the archenemy of the artistic imagination. Wilson Harris's work shares in what the biologist, Nobel laureate Jacques Monod, describes in Chance and Necessity as the ultimate aim of the whole of science, the clarification of “man's relationship to the universe.” And Harris's idea of what that relationship is, is essentially the same as that of modern science. The only intelligent purpose in the universe uncovered by science is man's purpose. Though science sees man on the one hand as an accidental product of an indifferent universe, it also sees him as the animal with unique potentialities of rational thought, foresight, poetic imagination and feelings of compassion. He is the only consciously creative force we know. The things we value most, like art and language, are his creation. And only he can form a conception of what he wants to be, and in that sense be his own creation. Wilson Harris says much of this in a few lines in the essay, “Form and Realism in the West Indian Artist.” After asking who or what is the creator of man, he says, “Man is frequently overwhelmed by the immense and alien power of the universe. But within that immense and alien power the frail heartbeat of man is the never-ending fact of creation.”

The creative scientific imagination of our time and the creative imagination of Wilson Harris concern themselves with the same kinds of questions. Both study what lies beneath appearances: underlying structures, rhythms and processes, relations between and among phenomena. Both are concerned with such philosophical questions as permanence and change, the discrete and the continuous, the abstract and the concrete, the finite and the infinite, necessity and chance, the interplay of opposites, the basic contradictions and the dynamics of change, and the mysterious harmony and unity scientists in general and Wilson Harris feel exists in the universe. Both imaginations, that which characterizes the creative minds of modern science and that of Wilson Harris, function to a considerable degree in the same way. Both consciously combine symbols in order to make abstract constructions that represent aspects of reality, establishing among things correlations and unsuspected resemblances. Both rely heavily on intuition. Both face the unknown with humility. Each knows there are limitations to the power of reason. Both, however, have faith that the harmony they believe to exist in the universe is increasingly accessible to us and that the understandings we arrive at have philosophical and moral significance, that many of them have the potentiality of bringing about new outlooks and great change.

Wilson Harris shares with theoretical scientists of our age, though not with them alone, the belief that there is always something new in the world, that everything material is constantly moving and changing, that invisible realities beneath appearances cannot be wholly known, partly because of the one-sided bias of the observer but also because things can only be known in their relationships and these are not only endlessly complex and proliferating but also ever-changing. It is not possible, as The Waiting Room puts it, ever to be dead in step with “the swift runner of life.” We are especially deceived when we try to isolate something in order to examine it. Then, Harris says, we arrest a “web of processes.” For, as modern science knows, the properties of things exist only in relationship. In The Waiting Room, this concept, that only in relationship can things be known, and especially in the association of opposites, is conveyed by the sex imagery throughout.

Relativity physics finds that different observers have different time scales which depend on their motion. The time scale is intimately related to space in a time-space continuum. Time and space do not have separate existences apart from matter but rather are aspects of matter. Wilson Harris's related concepts began to appear early—always, of course, interwoven with his other meanings. In one of the poems in Eternity to Season, entitled “The Glorious Children of the Gods,” we read:

For time is no fixed boat or inevitable doom
but is the motion of men and matter in space, subtly
flowing and binding into universal action, into construction,
into related texture and interaction, into function and
formation, mortality and immortality, all one substance
moving and making time.

In quantum physics the idea of complementarity is of great significance. The phenomenon of light must be viewed alternately in two contradictory ways, as corpuscles and as waves. Each view alone is incomplete, the full reality being revealed only in the association of the two views. Analogous to this idea is Harris's concept that we find reality only in the association of antagonistic principles. It is first introduced in the essay, “Art and Criticism” (1951), in the passage reacting to that school of West Indian art which idealizes the sun: “I have lived for long periods in savannahs so much exposed to heat and fire, that the sun has become an adversary—one of two antagonistic principles—night and day—and only an association of these principles provides release.” In this instance the antagonistic principles are night and day, but readers of Wilson Harris will be reminded of all the other pairs that appear in the novels, usually joined by a slash: fire/ice, subjective/objective, material/immaterial, positive/negative, up/down, left/right and so on, all so-called opposites necessary to each other in a dynamic inter-relationship which alone can generate new creation.

Wilson Harris's idea that immaterial form is primary and material content secondary may appear at first to be simply Platonic idealism or a yearning for another world of spirit only. It will then appear to be in contradiction to his clear affirmation of the concrete in The Waiting Room and elsewhere; to the idea that value should be conceived in terms of “flesh and blood, not spirit and stone,” and to the repudiation of a “total paradise” in “Age of the Rainmakers.” But on closer examination, his idea of the primacy of form is found to parallel the modern scientific interpretation of form in living beings as explained in a passage from Science in History by the physicist and historian of science, J. D. Bernal: “What is permanent, then, in an individual life is not the matter but the forms and reactions of the molecules out of which organized beings are made. The actual matter seems to be essential mainly because it is needed to execute the continual cycles of chemical changes which are life.” So, while matter is needed and form cannot exist apart from it, the form, the process, is the permanent thing and the particular matter only temporary. Heisenberg, the nuclear physicist, makes the point about the primacy of form in this way: “The elementary particle, like the stationary state of an atom, is determined by its symmetry … I am quite fascinated by the idea that symmetry should be something much more fundamental than the particle itself.” Heisenberg's illustration is a splendid one to illustrate also Wilson Harris's idea that form is basic.

Closely connected with the idea of the material and the immaterial is the idea of matter as congealed energy. Is it too wild an idea that the animal which is related to the light of the sun at the end of Palace of the Peacock is energy made visible: “The animal was so lithe and swift … It bounded and glanced everywhere, on the table, on the windowsill with the dying light of the sun, drawing itself together into a musing ball. It danced around the room swift as a running light, impetuous as a dream. It was everywhere and nowhere, a picture of abandonment and air, a cat on crazy balls of feet. It was the universe …”

As a last example of Wilson Harris's way of appropriating for his own uses ideas from modern science, there is this beautiful passage from Tumatumari which ends with specific reference to knowledge derived from historical geology:

The sun was high in the sky when Roi began to ascend the hill with the boar he had slain on his back. The clouds had vanished and the line of the mountains appeared now like a lofty crest of water breaking its own wave ceaselessly—undulating and refracting. It was a curious impression—the vast waving outline of the mountains and the transparent ocean of the sky within and beneath which fell away other exposures, shorelines, crests and seas like interior jungles of oceanic worlds, vegetation as well as sand—tier after tier, rank after rank of bush, descending balconies as in a submerged amphitheatre upon one of the lowest rungs of which Roi climbed … The heatwaves upon sand and forest were intense: they remoulded and shattered everything—rising and falling contours—fluid/solid—water/fire—cauldron of space … In truth the ocean had once crawled here upon an ancient continental shelf and climbed still higher beyond Tumatumari to its farthest limit—the escarpment of Kaieteur …

As the novels go on, the symbols become stranger, the inventions less recognizably like anything we have known before, the juxtaposition and interpenetration of images more startling, and the use of language more and more unusual; but the basic form remains, the dynamical process of human consciousness that Wilson Harris envisions for man as he—man—responds to the need to create a new conception of himself. The strange symbols resemble those of a mathematician who finds that no old symbols convey his new meaning and that he must invent his own. The mathematician defines his use of the symbols; Wilson Harris conveys the meaning of his only by their use in many changing contexts. Thus he forces the reader to do what he espouses—to maintain an openness of mind about reality and to keep his thinking fluid. His images do not have fixed significance. In new contexts, they have new meanings, and their potentialities for further transformation are implied.

The effect on Wilson Harris's art of the idea that everything in the universe is moving and interacting as part of a dynamic system could be demonstrated perhaps endlessly. If one opens a Harris novel to almost any part, one finds all in movement and interaction. The development of Palace of the Peacock, for example, could never be conveyed by a series of still pictures or paintings, no matter how beautiful. The movement is all. Each moment of a Wilson Harris novel is part of a process of change—of crumbling or reconstitution—leading to a sudden leap in consciousness. Even when a symbol appears to represent the inert, the forever barren, it holds within it the capacity to be transformed, as with the gorgon's head in Tumatumari which at the end smiles, “wreathed by the elements,” or as with the “goal” of environment in “Age of the Rainmakers” which eventually becomes “a fertile prisonhouse.”

What finally is likely to be his effect upon the age? In what he calls “the dialogue of culture and civilization” his undertaking is to act as a guide in the building of a community of imaginations dedicated to sensing the needs of humanity and exploring the possibilities of imagination to bring about truly fundamental changes in man's consciousness. Wilson Harris enlarges perspectives, showing the necessity to find alternatives to conventional institutions, attitudes and art. He sets an example of the boldest experimentation and exploration through poetry. Above all, we are caught up in his concern; we are led to wonder whether it is not, after all, possible to achieve the unity of mankind. Wilson Harris, well-known in other parts of the world, is too little known in this country. Yet readers in the United States dearly need to discover him, for his art has the power, like Carroll's music in Palace of the Peacock, to touch “the listening harp in every member of the crew.”

Principal Works

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Fetish [under the pseudonym Kona Waruk] (poetry) 1951

The Well and the Land (poetry) 1952

Eternity to Season: Poems of Separation and Reunion (poetry) 1954

*Palace of the Peacock (novel) 1960

*The Far Journey of Oudin (novel) 1961

*The Whole Armour (novel) 1962

*The Secret Ladder (novel) 1963

Heartland (novel) 1964

The Eye of the Scarecrow (novel) 1965

Tradition and the West Indian Novel (lectures) 1965

Tradition, the Writer and Society (essays) 1967

The Waiting Room (novel) 1967

Tumatumari (novel) 1968

Ascent to Omai (novel) 1970

History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and the Guianas (criticism) 1970

The Sleepers of Roraima (short stories) 1970

The Age of the Rainmakers (short stories) 1971

Black Marsden: A Tabula Rasa Comedy (novel) 1972

Fossil and Psyche (criticism) 1974

Companions of the Day and Night (novel) 1975

Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness and Genesis of the Clowns (novels) 1977

The Tree of the Sun (novel) 1978

Explorations: A Selection of Talks and Articles, 1966–1981 (essays and lectures) 1981

The Angel at the Gate (novel) 1982

The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination (essays) 1983

Carnival (novel) 1985

The Guyana Quartet (novels) 1985

The Infinite Rehearsal (novella) 1987

The Four Banks of the River of Space (novel) 1990

The Radical Imagination: Lectures and Talks from 1989–1991 (essays and lectures) 1992

The Carnival Trilogy (novels) 1993

Resurrection at Sorrow Hill (novel) 1993

Jonestown (novel) 1996

Selected Essays of Wilson Harris: The Unfinished Genesis of the Imagination [edited By A. J. M. Bundy] (essays) 1999

The Dark Jester (novel) 2001

*These novels comprise The Guyana Quartet.

†These novels comprise The Carnival Trilogy.

D. W. Russell (essay date November 1974)

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SOURCE: Russell, D. W. “The Dislocating Act of Memory: An Analysis of Wilson Harris' Tumatumari.World Literature Written in English 13, no. 2 (November 1974): 237–49.

[In the following essay, Russell examines the major thematic developments in Tumatumari as a complex expression of “the art of memory.”]

In describing a new radical art which will go beyond the dead-end realism of the novel, Wilson Harris states “that, in fact, an art of memory which dislocates, in some measure, an idolatrous plane of realism by immersing us in a peculiar kind of ruined fabric, may help to free us from a consensus of bestiality, monolithic helplessness, monolithic violence.”1 Just such an art of memory is used by Harris in Tumatumari in his presentation of the drama of consciousness of Prudence, and the novel becomes a complex act of memory. Although the poetic density of the language and structure of the novel continually shows the inadequacy of any purely intellectual analysis of the work, a discussion of the major thematic developments is useful in permitting the reader to share to some extent in the “dimension of translation as well as digestion”2 of this dislocating art and act of memory achieved by Prudence and her author.

The landscape in which this act of memory takes place is permeated by a sense of void, introduced in the first scene of the novel. For Prudence at the pool before dawn the sky is a void since “the stars had faded but the sun not yet risen,” and the “sky appeared to her at the moment stricken of its true digestion of fire—of both native stars and sun”; she is surrounded by the “opaque light void of the sky.”3 The theme of the void is expanded throughout the novel by the presentation of Prudence living at Tumatumari, on the edge of the advance of the technological age and the withdrawal of primitive society. She is the product of history, and has left the civilization of Georgetown to move to the frontier, into the void between the two cultures, between the dying present and the unborn future. She exists also in an emotional void because of the nearly simultaneous death of her husband in the falls and of her child at birth.

The first reaction of Prudence to this sense of loss is nervous breakdown, her present state. There are, however, “two proportions of ‘post-natal’ breakdown” that she is experiencing, stated at the beginning of chapter two:

On one hand she found herself searching for a concentration or location of loss to serve as the medium out of which a new illumination of feeling could emerge—a structure of metamorphosis completely natural and original despite its axes of dislocation. … Prudence felt she could fall no lower and would learn to build all the higher. Arrow of ascension. Block of construction. Fire in stone.

On the other hand she found herself divided upon a hairline of clarity so extreme it made her despair of the very foundations she wanted to find. And this despair—the paradoxical landslide at times of every grain of support—was both pinprick and horror—balloon of construction: at such moments the target of memory shone without relief as if to confirm an absolute disorientation and realm. There had been the death of her newborn child. Then there had been the death of her husband Roi. …


This passage gives us two important directions of the novel: the concern for establishing opposite possibilities for one event, the appointing of gains within losses, losses within gains, and the fact that this process is the “target of memory.” In fact, as has been stated earlier, the novel becomes a complex act of memory by which Prudence reconstructs her immediate and remote past, not only from her own consciousness, but through that of Roi and her father as well, both before and after their deaths. The function of memory in this reconstruction of the past is thus somewhat complicated. As the novel progresses there is a kind of “serial illumination” operative, to borrow a term from Harris' essay on “Interior of the Novel.”4 This can be seen in the connections between the five sections of the novel: each one is an expansion of a new conception of the past discovered in the previous section. In this way Prudence's memory achieves a transformation of the past which in effect is a destruction of “the incestuous image,” a rebirth of the “lost and alien.”5

I have pointed out that the theme of the void is established in the first scene of the novel. This first incident also gives us an image of the unity of opposites which at the same time triggers the mechanism of memory. The “object” Prudence finds in the water is both the face of her child and the back of her drowned husband's head, combined in one. In a sense it is a mask of both and it introduces the image of the mask, a major one in the novel. The first section of Tumatumari, “The Mask of the Sun,” deals with Roi Solman and his connection with the disintegrating Indian society; both have at one point assumed the mask of the sun. Prudence discovered this while discussing the mysterious Indians with her engineer husband, Roi, himself half Indian. The silent band of Indians upsets both the emancipated natives and Roi and Prudence, since they are a vanquished and vanishing remainder of the primitive culture's original myth of kinship with the sun, their primal vision. Since the arrival of the technological age the lost tribe of the sun has “retired into what was virtually for them their ‘death’ or ‘sleep’ of fire.” (32) Yet they are periodically and unexpectedly seen. Roi admits that he has been exploiting this myth to the advantage of his scientific work. He has been able to do this because of the coincidence of the lost tribe's last appearance five years ago at the time of his near-fatal accident at the bottom of the well. The nature of his injury (“When they pulled me up I felt like glass. Shining and white. Electricity to last a lifetime. I saw everything lit up from within”[25].) and his recovery (“by way of the filthy ceremony—the Ceremony of the Rock as the people around the hill call it. We rubbed our noses upon it—metaphorically speaking of course. I was seen as their lighthouse—scapegoat. …” [36] are used by Roi to establish his super-natural powers in the eyes of the natives. When Prudence objects that it is beastly, Roi replies: “It is. Self-preservative. Ghetto. After all the object is one of upholding an economic establishment—emancipation, enlightenment—by fair means or foul. …” (36) Roi feels this pretense, this wearing of the mask of the sun, is the only possibility for them. “It is a long sad incestuous tale no doubt through which may I remind you we preserve our crops.” (36) Prudence's reply is prophetic: “That's the rub. You still don't see the rapids—how deep and swift are the emotions on which you gamble for control. …” (37) Roi does in fact founder in the rapids and lose his life.

This “Ceremony of the Rock,” the act by which the mask is assumed, becomes the title of the next section of the book which is an exploration of this quality of pretense in Roi and in Prudence's father. Prudence had seen her father's mask of forbearance broken at the moment of his death when his pain at the division between his children caused by racial prejudice brings him to curse God for this deception which he has perpetuated all his life. He dies saying “anything I would give to erase my own name—break in order to build. A true covenant. …” (45) Earlier in his life he had made an admission of the mask to Pamela, over-heard by Prudence. Pamela has asked permission to marry a New Yorker. Henry sees this as an attempt to pass for white, to hide her mixed blood, an attempt which he permits but condemns since it is part of the front which he has helped maintain: “Don't say you've lived with a bogus historical mask all this time and not known. I thought you knew of my spiritual demise. It started the day I kept telling myself my family—kith and kin—came first. I needed money, respect. Cornered. I must put up a front for you and for society. Propped myself up to serve your interest. A dead man. Immortal soul. Wouldn't it have been healthier if I had struck—lived for a while—abandoned you all … ?” (63) In this sense Roi and Henry Tenby are similar: they are both aware that they support a pretense. To Prudence they appear “like outriders of remorse—closely-guarded ‘secret.’ Art of control. For the good of the tribe/family. Economics of survival. Pass law. Virtue. Reins upon an underground imagination which they exercised over a lifetime of bitterness until from their own lips a heartrending cry arose.” (46) Her father had betrayed her by showing her his life was an enormous failure, rather than a success; Roi has also betrayed her by his death which has been a result of his impatience to establish the technological age at any cost. It has been a loss of belief and life for the ‘gain’ of civilization. Prudence finds the double betrayal almost too cruel to bear, but at the same time “she knew there was no escape until she had learnt to strike back in the name of love. The height of absurdity really. The depth of love. Tenderness. Cruelty. Responsibility. Hell. Compassion. All combined … rolled into One. …” (48)

Moved by this need to strike back in the name of love Prudence creates a scene in her mind that closely connects the tribe of the sun with Roi. She sees the Indians as calling to her “to be born again—expelled from the bondage of history towards a spiral of ‘vision’ …” (49) as they ascend to the summit of illusion. They refuse to remain “garbage to be disposed of upon the frontiers of a technological universe.” (48) She along with them should not be blinded by the confining, false pretense of history. She sees the Indians as moving to a new vision of the absolute, which is either life or death, as they climb the mountain toward the sun:

And as the cloud-backed Indians stopped at last and plunged to read the summons of life or death—to break the arbitrary divide in a flash—she strained her eyes for Roi. It was as if the night had descended when she would give birth to their child. And as her husband plunged across the river of the jungle to reach her he appeared to descend deeper than he intended or knew—pushed and pulled by her. God—by her. IN HER NAME. A collision grew imminent. She felt she had been hit by stars: self-knowledge, the constellation of the father in the son, infliction of injury seen at the last moment for what it was—stunned silence (science)—the secret door to the future.


This is a key point in the novel. As a result of the collision of cultures Prudence for the first time has the intuition of a gain within the loss of her husband: the injury of his death is the secret door to the rediscovery of the future, it brings the recognition of the necessity of a creative rediscovery.

Henry Tenby, Prudence now sees, had wanted the same when he condemned Pamela's and his own blind masquerade: “he would have given his right arm to establish upon a watershed of time—one slope leading back into the abyss of slavery—the other moving forward towards a contour which invoked the past again but not upon a level of “connivance,” rejection, “conspiracy,” consent: secret redress instead (genuine spiral of re-discovery, creativity). …” (62) Yet the closest Henry Tenby had come to this in life was a condemnation of his historical perspective which had excluded totality in favour of imposing formulae from above, formulae derived from a narrow exclusive view of the past and present. This is made clear to him when he reflects on his dispute in forty-seven with the lunatic expert who had wanted to reform the water conservancies. Tenby had won, but the course of events proved him wrong. His view had ignored the true lie of the land, had been a misconception of topography. Looking back on his mistakes, he has nothing but contempt for his ideas: they were uncreative, “restrictive,” subservient to the existing economic institutions, “increasingly arbitrary (self-sufficient),” and ignored any “complex evolutionary functions.” (64–65)

Prudence herself is tempted to see only what she wants to see, she realizes, when she recalls her visit to the deserted village, confirmed in the belief that Rakka too is pregnant, although she is not. Her erection of this “model of self-deception” had been an attempt to harden herself “against the womb of time, against the decapitation of the ghetto, anguish of reflection, pain.” (67) She is willing to do anything to save her man. She is also tempted to see the future the same way Roi has, as the violation of cultures “which one sought to fashion under the name of economic self-righteousness and self-sufficiency,” (69) but which in fact would be “Economic sting. Consume or Perish.” (68) However, when she recognizes Roi in the hut after momentarily thinking she was seeing his dead body, she recognizes also that the ‘dead’ future which she had imagined was really the ‘living’ past. She knows that the ‘living’ future can only be built by accepting the violation of cultures for what it is, by accepting both gain and loss:

As if the light that suffuses the sky (which one takes for granted as indigenous to the canvas of space) were dimmed and one knew that the quality of one's vision rested much more on an alien fracture or sun than on a uniform pattern of illumination: that one's vision sprang out of a collision of faculties—apprehensive reflex, nerve, retina—from which one groped to populate the face of the universe with “living” as well as “dead” features (technological signposts) in order to recapture a profound intuition of both loss and gain, reconstructive order. One's blindness to uniformity, in fact, was the beginning of one's vision of a particular creative/uncreative humanity immersed in the origin of the sun. …


Roi also comes to this realization when the Indians withdraw their support from his economic system based on a one-sided deception. Ironically, he loses the Indians due to the myth he has exploited. They believe he has impregnated Rakka, thereby making an only too-human bond with their race, and since Roi is half-caste this means the end of the race for the Indians. They withdraw their support from the technology of the future, which they now see was gained by deception. Roi feels that although the belief in Rakka's pregnancy is wrong physically, it may be right metaphysically: “They know she is (pregnant)—metaphysically speaking. Perhaps they are right. They're withdrawing their labour—end of an age—decapitation of the ghetto. I have come to symbolise this which is the last thing I dreamt my blundering tools, abortive technology would engender. It may be the slow painful beginning of far-flung contours of re-construction along lines truly consistent with an alien miracle—creative/un-creative humanity, law of opposites, genuine freedom/genuine control—in lieu of self-deception in the name of. …” (72)

This section of the novel ends with the speech of Comrade Block, a final indictment of the economic establishment by both Roi and Henry Tenby. The speech is introduced by the above speech by Roi, and Prudence recalls the incident from the past “with Roi's drowned eyes.” (72) Delivered by Comrade Block, an anonymous character “who could be me,” says Henry, the speech seems to be personally directed to Henry's faults and the mistakes of Guiana and all modern civilization. The speech ends: “And lastly I am speaking to YOU out there, purveyor of news, engineer of loves, historian of deceptions—all in the name of the gods. You won't get away with it anymore. There's a price-tag on your head—hit-and-run driver. …” (76)

By the end of the first two books, Prudence's memory has endowed both Roi and her father with an awareness of the self-deception and the artificiality of the society they have sustained. In “The Chair of the Well” Prudence's memory and imagination are used even more freely than they were in the closing speech of the preceding book, to reshape the facts of their lives according to her “intuition of total relationships born of rising equally setting sun.” (81) Her memory begins to transform the losses, to digest the trauma of history. The section is built around the complex of images connected with the title. The “chair” is the chair of history, literally the chair-like top of the well made by Roi in the escarpment, so that the walls of the well are similar to the rock face of the falls. To look into the well is to look into the past through a hole in the rock of history, into the pools of memory.

Looking into the well, Prudence's vision of the death of Roi is transformed into the complicated image of the spinning wheel, with Roi pinned at the centre. As he is drowning, the river is seen as “flowing towards him like lava of consciousness down the Kaieteuran escarpment.” (84) Roi has been given an intuition of total relationship; he connects two opposite poles: “These were Prudence on stilts of fire above him in her balloon of labour, childbirth, and Rakka beneath him like a sack of refuse. He stood halfway between them suspended in the volume of the waterfall—riven by an arrow of pain—divided by a hairline of sensibility. The circumference of fire and water revolved around him. …” (84) This image is expanded until all of history is drawn to the spinning wheel's circumference, whose centre is the centre of “a dying world.” (84)

The appearance of Prudence's father on the wheel, as a centaur, embodying the political conscience of the race which roped souls “all in the name of progress,” (86) forms the major part of this section. Prudence rearranges the facts that she knows about her father to bring about the birth of his conscience, “to life the veil from a dogma of purity, self-righteous deception.” (87) She sees the “dog of conscience” snapping at the “strange pitiless hėap of currency at his elbow—hideous bones of gold, litter of remorse.” (88) Henry's affair with Isabella is the first example of his enslavement to money. He had wanted to buy her to possess her, rather than simply love her; similarly, she had allowed herself to be possessed because she thought he was rich. When she abandons him he sees the truth about himself.

Prudence next sees her father “shopping in the womb of place for the mask of a lifetime—the mask of virtue.” (93) It is in 1922 in Georgetown, in the middle of an economic recession. He has already begun to acquire his reputation for life but is not certain that it suits him. He visits a brothel called FACE LIFT where he discovers that a life spent in the “service for money” (94) is really a life in a whorehouse, and it doesn't matter what mask you wear, since they are all masks, “a rose is a rose is a. …” (95) The madam is transformed into a Chinese woman, then into Rakka, and is seen as the “whore of the centuries” used by every “chronic lover,” including Roi. (96) Henry Tenby's decision to hide his conception of this truth, principally embodied in the prostitution of populations (implosion) for the sake of economics, from his children, is seen by Prudence as her spiritual conception, although she was born in 1940.

The spiritual conception in 1922 of prudence (Prudence) is followed in 1924 by the spiritual conception of Hugh Skelton Tenby, the only black member of the family. Prudence discovered an essay by her father on the effect of immigration of cheap male labour only, with no regard for the sexual balance, and on the cruel methods of transport. The essay had been conceived in 1924 when Henry decided not to disclose the scandal of the death of Jack History due to an unrelieved erection, reported to him by the “waif of the docks and streets,” (105) although he knew that this was just an expression of the humiliating excess of males caused by the inhumane immigration policies. Tenby wants to sidestep the question of race and sex because he needs money and is afraid of being accused of being “anti-white, anti-black. Anti-god, anti-devil. Christ knows what. No what I need in 1924 if I am to enter into business—the business of writing books—is a mask of refinement, a skeleton in the cupboard.” (106) He decides not to ignore, but to attenuate the report of the death by erection by saying that the waif saw Jack History, “but that you're just a little bitch—a victim—a victim of hallucination—collective breakdown—nightmare wish-fulfilment—desire for a leader. …” (107)

Prudence is now able to see this attempt to postpone confrontation between “individual conscience and collective mirage” as a “fatal miscalculation.” (107) His tongue is seized by the waif of the streets. His essay written finally in 1938 on this question remains hidden away unpublished, just as his son Hugh, born in 1938, is hidden when guests arrive.

The actions of Henry as he is dying, however, are seen by Prudence as a resumption of his conversation with the muse, with the waif of the streets. The fourth book, “The Brothel of the Masks,” presents us with a new view of life seen after death, by means of the “Eye” in the rock face of Tumatumari, the living dead eye: It is Prudence who creates this “Eye” and she uses it to create “intimate volumes, unpublished acts, unpublished dreams, autobiographical plays of equivalences of destiny (all seized and torn in a moment of self-betrayal)—which her father had hidden nevertheless in his trunk or coffin of life—beneath the mountain of souls—or was it in his dark primeval sky above—” (112–13). It is her attempt to achieve a reciprocity in the apparent tragedy of her father's life, an attempt to reach an “ultimate treaty of sensibility … between man and man, man and nature.” (109) Through the intermediary of Prudence, Henry is allowed the confrontation which he had a voided in his life. He is able to see the “Brothel of Masks” as a place of filthy lucre, built on the foundation of the taxpayer's money. After his death, since he is now free from the self-deceptions of his life, he confronts the reality of his blame for Hugh's death in the budget riots of 1962: “Sum and sun of all his hopes—Hugh Skelton lying upon his bier.Shot in the streets of Georgetown.Budget Riots 1962. The shock of confrontation, of standing upon a frontier of frozen resources—frozen profits—broke him into two to confirm his state or constitution I + I = 0”; and “Message for Hugh Skelton. This bullet fired by your father's rich kith and kin—all races of endeavour—white + brown + black.” (120) In this section Prudence is using the conscience of Henry as a “door of conceptions,” “capable of supporting a disparity of relationships—weak and strong—” (117). Besides the transformation of her father's deathbed curse into the blessing of the resumption of the conversation with the muse which allows both Prudence and her father new conceptions of the past, Prudence now sees this renewed conversation as being anticipated by her father during his lifetime of silence. Ironically, his self-betrayal and silence during his life were also a blessing since he was forced into an awareness of “the shackles of his time.” (131)

His third child, Pamela, represents his decision to accept the disparity between academic freedom and freedom restricted by convention, the lack of any real possibility for change in the present, although he still believed it could be achieved in the future—it was just “economically unpropitious, politically and culturally unwise” (129). Pamela's spiritual conception is his decision to represent the vested interests of society, while secretly hoping for real change in the future.

The episode of the drought on the Canje sums up much of Henry's life and death. The drought is equally the excess of sun and the excess of the distortions of reality imposed by the economics of the society. All his life Henry has supported this constitutional and economic rape, while secretly hoping for a reversal. The sudden torrential rains do reverse the situation, by imposing the other extreme, and causing the death of children by contaminated water. Similarly, Henry must sacrifice his children to relieve the drought of the status quo of his society.

After death, Henry is struck by the collision of the opposites, sun and flood, and he gains a new conception of their unity in Canje. If they had been aware of the true unity of the landscape—“the endless precipitation of fire and the endless uprising of waterfall” (137)—they could have avoided the extremes of drought and flood (ghetto of economic self-interest, self-destruction).

Prudence now sees her father's life as “a necessary sickness as well as a growing health” (138) since it is from his suffering that he has arrived at this new conception. His death has brought about a transformation in his life: “a closed lifetime it had seemed to her (Prudence)—her father's lifetime: an open pit or lid it now was (new conception—drama of conception—drama of consciousness)” (141). Prudence now sees his self-sacrifice as a necessary “container of elements the digestion of which was incompatible with the times—the explosion of which would have been catastrophic and premature” (141). But now, in the void which surrounds Prudence at Tumatumari, and “from within the ultimate seal of death” (141), he is beginning the confrontation:

with elements that had been restricted before within a cruel bottle-neck or focus of obsession but now had been partially liberated and digested by an ironical weight (or weightlessness) of imagination. Death-in-life. Life-in-death. Self-surrender in self-betrayal. Self-betrayal in self-surrender. The unwritten constitution of a treaty with the muse which was to endure because of its capacity for standing on its own head the void of his century—birth of a new technology—epitaph of the old in the cradle of the new. Wheel within wheel—resumption of traffic into the psyche, into space, into the hinterland, into the bottomless pool of origins.


The book ends with Henry himself now seeing what Prudence discovered at various points earlier in the novel. He orders the spiritual conception of his children as the reverse of their physical conception. He further notes for the first time that Pamela and Diana were similar: both seemed to be what they were not; and opposite: Diana, a neurotic virgin; Pamela, promiscuous. He had been fooled by both, and realizes that Diana did not hate him for his rape of her, but rather herself for not being able to keep up her illusions. This last new conception by Henry of his past seems to open the way for an endless stream of new conceptions which he will make, but which are not included in the novel. By the end of “The Brother of Masks” Prudence has endowed her father's death with the capability of establishing his desired “treaty of sensibility.” She has produced, as it were, his unpublished play “Funeral Cradle,” a “life in death.”

In the last book of the novel, “Conception of the Game,” Prudence turns the “Eye of the Well” on her own activities in the course of the novel. The creation of the “Eye on the Rock Face of Eternity” is at once an illumination, a new conception of the past, present and future, a conception of the game which she played in the past, and a conception of a new game in the future. Throughout the novel, Prudence had been attempting to reconstruct her family's “history,” which had seemed a harmless sort of game to her. In fact, it had been a dangerous game since she was forced to see the game of self-deception her ancestors had been playing with nature, the game of masks, of hypocrisies. This realization seemed to destroy her world, since it caused the destruction of assumptions on which the world of her ancestors was based: “rainfall of idolatries, splintering of perfectionist assumptions I had never dreamt to question.” (153) The birth of the “Eye,” however, is also the realization that this seeming end is not the end but the beginning, a dying to be reborn: “And as these models crumbled it began to dawn upon me that a new spatial womb existed whose reciprocal functions one had long denied—new engines or structures of the psyche—” (153). As well, the birth of the “Eye” is just part of a series of beginnings: “The Eye on the Face … (she then wrote) was itself but a ring or clasp in a chain of identity extrapolated into her fluid grasp and … glancing at her, through her, with her (in binding her to itself in one light) was being glanced at itself from another source through the window of its disparity of perception and therefore unbinding her in another light. A fantastic reciprocity of elements which in encircling her had no alternative but to release her since it subsisted on a hairline or crack within the Obsessional Mask of an Age.” (151–52)

Although Prudence has achieved release through this chain of transformations, it is also destruction. Reciprocity of elements. Funeral Cradle. The novel ends with her destruction/birth in the waterfall—from “the nervous precipice of breakdown into the bottomless pool of memory.” (153) As the old Prudence (prudence) is destroyed, she is flooded with new translations of Roi's death, her mother's rape, and the remote history of the human race: “And yet with each fluid bubble the Gorgon's head smiled, wreathed by the elements, translation of suns, subterranean as well as extra-stellar, across space, towards a reciprocal vacancy. An unprejudiced flesh and blood. Majesty of the game. Game of the Conception. The Great Game.” (155–56) The novel ends, but the process of creative reconstruction can't: it opens eternally on another beginning through the dislocating act of memory.


  1. Wilson Harris, “Interior of the Novel: Amerindian/European/African Relations,” in National Identity: Papers Delivered at the Commonwealth Literature Conference, University of Queensland, Brisbane, 9th–15th August, 1968, ed. K. L. Goodwin (London and Melbourne: Heinemann, 1970), p. 142. Elsewhere in this ten-page article Harris cites the works of Camus and his imitators, and of Robbe-Grillet as examples of the dead-end in which the contemporary realistic novel finds itself; the former works present a consolidation of the absurd, the latter a consolidation of meaninglessness. In rejecting these contemporary French writers and their followers, and calling for a radical renewal of art, Wilson Harris shows striking parallels with a third French writer, Arthur Rimbaud, whose work preceded Harris' by almost a century. I am currently doing further study on this topic.

  2. “Interior of the Novel,” p. 138.

  3. Wilson Harris, Tumatumari (London: Faber, 1968), p. 13. All further citations from the novel will be identified by the page number in parentheses following the quotation from this text.

  4. “Interior of the Novel,” p. 146.

  5. See the second epigram to Tumatumari, p. 8.

Nathaniel Mackey (essay date winter 1978)

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SOURCE: Mackey, Nathaniel. “The Unruly Pivot: Wilson Harris' The Eye of the Scarecrow.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 20, no. 4 (winter 1978): 633–59.

[In the following essay, Mackey discusses the novel The Eye of the Scarecrow as a pivotal work in the development of Harris's self-reflexive narrative style.]

But I experienced once more the resulting chaos I knew, loss of orientation, the unruly pivot around which revolves the abstract globe in one's head.

—Wilson Harris


Wilson Harris must be one of the most daring authors writing in English. Born in 1921 in British Guiana (since become, with independence in 1966, Guyana) and now living in England, Harris has published—in addition to a book of poems, a book of critical essays, two books of retellings of native Caribbean myths, and scattered essays and stories—thirteen highly unusual novels.1 The sixth of these, The Eye of the Scarecrow, can be said to be the pivot (the “unruly” pivot) on which Harris' work turns decidedly self-reflexive. I say “decidedly” because this novel is not necessarily the first in which the insights offered pertain as much to the writing itself as to the ostensible subject of that writing, the characters and the events which occupy the work. Palace of the Peacock, Harris' first novel, the tale of a boat crew's fatal journey upriver through the Guianese jungle, reads on a more subtle level as an extended comment on its own genesis and intended impact.2 It is not accidental that the fulfillment the members of the crew experience in the paradisiacal Palace of the Peacock is described in aesthetic terms—in terms of a sad and glorious all-enthralling music. Given the distinctly poetic and musical character of Harris' prose, one is justified in feeling that when the narrator at the end remarks, “This was the inner music and voice of the peacock I suddenly encountered and echoed and sang as I had never heard myself sing before” (PP, p. 152), the music is the novel itself. The plausibility of such a reading—of viewing the crew's adventure as a journey into the apotheosis of poetry—is enhanced by the fact that the boat's skipper, who is not only the novel's chief protagonist but something of the narrator's alter ego as well, is named Donne. And as though that were not enough, his poet namesake is explicitly evoked by the epigraph to Book III, two lines from John Donne's “Hymn to God My God, in My Sickness.”3

Somewhat similarly, Heartland, Harris' fifth novel, has to do with the growth in consciousness of Zechariah Stevenson, and concludes with a postscript comprised of fragments of three poems written by Stevenson and found in the half-burnt resthouse in which he is last seen before his disappearance in the heartland jungle. These three poems, it turns out, are taken from Harris' privately printed book of poems Eternity to Season (1954), thus making a case for the identification of Stevenson with the novel's author and for a reading of the novel as a self-reflexive treatment of the theme of “the growth of the poet's mind.” When I say that with The Eye of the Scarecrow Harris' work turns decidedly self-reflexive, I mean that what operates as a latent impulse in the earlier novels surfaces in this sixth one as a dominant thrust.

A definite continuity exists between The Eye of the Scarecrow and the five novels which precede it, in that all six have to do with journeys beyond the boundaries of conventional consciousness, journeys into a jungle representing the marginality of authentic thought. Harris' novels typically involve a consciousness-altering “confession of weakness”4 brought about by a crisis or catastrophe of some kind. The crew in Palace of the Peacock, Mohammed, Ram, Beti, and Oudin in The Far Journey of Oudin, Cristo, Sharon, and Magda in The Whole Armour, Fenwick and Bryant in The Secret Ladder, and Stevenson in Heartland all undergo a collapse of their customary ways of perceiving the world. In The Eye of the Scarecrow, however, this “confession of weakness” and its attendant journey into unconventionality pertain more explicitly to artistic conventions. Very early in the novel the narrator “confesses” his inability to conform to the conventions of what he later calls “idolatrous realism”:

Much as I would like to recall—like a ghost returning to the past—the identical map of place which shattered in a moment I cannot. … This effort of memory still cannot restore more than an assumption of an essential fabric of person and thing. … The fact is I find myself conferring the curious baptism of living imagination upon helpless relics, relics which thereby lose a smothering or smothered constitution and character. For if I were to attempt to confine or draw an exact relationship or absolute portrait of what everything was before the stroke fell and created a void in conventional memory, I would have succumbed to the dead tide of self-indulgent realism. On the other hand, to travel with the flood of animated wreckage that followed after, is a different matter, a trusting matter in which I am involved.

(ES, p. 15)

This inability is what makes for the book's unruliness.

The Eye of the Scarecrow, that is, is a novel which exasperates conventional expectations as to plot and characterization. In fact its plot, if it can be said to have one, revolves around the collapse of the materialist assumptions on which traditionally linear, mimetic narration is based. This collapse is symbolized in the novel by the crash of an airplane, a “reconnaissance machine,” in the jungle outside a place called Raven's Head. It is this crash which creates the “void in conventional memory” to which Harris refers in the passage quoted above. The crash, in some sense the denouement or climax of the novel (though Harris, true to the book's deconstructive thrust, calls it an “anti-climax”), is arrived at by way of a meandering, associational movement to which the book's diary format readily lends itself. Form is of a piece with content in that the novel, written as a series of journal entries, structurally embodies the fragmentariness for which the crash and a recurrence of manifesto-like assertions apologize. The book is an act of faith (“a trusting matter in which I am involved”)—and this in more than one sense. It concludes with the word amen and is prefaced by a passage from Ecclesiastes: “There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit.” Its fragmentariness and repudiation of “idolatrous realism” have to do with a religious unwillingness to invest entirely in the things of this world, with a recognition of the empirical realm's inability, again, to retain (or contain) the spirit. The impossibility of reducing even empirical reality to some static or fixed representation testifies to an indomitability or unruliness which intimates the spirit's domain: “The truth is—I can't remember. Evolution. Revolution. Regeneration. Collapse. All I can honestly say is that the potential fragments of recollection before and after GOD KNOWS WHAT are alive in a way I never suspected before” (ES, pp. 100–01; Harris' italics). Or again: “the flood of animated wreckage” (my italics).

The novel's plotlessness, its inability or refusal to represent experience in an acceptably reductionist, realistic way, proceeds from something like a gnostic estrangement from the world realism tries to portray. Typical of this estrangement is the following passage which insists upon the nothingness of the phenomenal world:

No wonder the ghostly idiot stranger and spectator in one's own breast—plunged into awareness of how deprived one was of root and reality—started prompting one to wonder indeed whether the blossoming casket in clear view carried rags of nothing within, or the wheat of something without, resembling a shattered loaf for this or that non-existent stomach.

(ES, p. 20)

At another point the narrator speaks of becoming “a religious stranger to all previous knowledge of emotion” (ES, p. 41). This gnostic estrangement regards the world as a misbegotten lapse into materiality, the issue of “the law of an unlawful beginning” (ES, p. 48), a demiurgic mistake. To be born into it is to suffer exile from the “treasure of immateriality” (ES, p. 32), from one's true residence in the spirit. Hence the recurrence throughout The Eye of the Scarecrow of the word misconception with its implication that to be born is not so much to have been conceived as to have been misconceived:

Indeed, long ago, in the tragic misconceived beginning (one now dreams to return to with a different paradoxical vision of hope) one chose to purchase the manufacture of despair, unwittingly it may be true, and tasted in this bargain a growing hoard of sensibility one conceived as self-sufficient and original, the newfound coin and cement of freedom, instantaneous harvest which seemed truly ambitious, truly right, anything but a miserly or incongruous investment in one's own human prolongation of misery.

(ES, p. 35)

Gnosis is the undoing of this misconception, a going back beyond birth to become the “Child in a womb of ancestral fantasy whose every unborn move is a refusal to bow to an inventory of mechanical fates” (ES, p. 89). This return to the womb is symbolized by the expedition to Raven's Head, “to the lost womb of a mining town, nine month's journey from Water Street into the jungle of conception” (ES, p. 48). When one notes the nine months difference between the date of the initial journal entry (25–26 December 1963) and that of the concluding “Postscript of Faith in Dark Room of Identity” (25 September 1964) one comes to see that the novel itself is the trip to Raven's Head, its writing Harris' gnostic act.

The crash of the “reconnaissance machine,” as I have already suggested, is the novel's self-reflexive image of its deconstructive drift, of its dismantling of what Harris calls “the novel of persuasion”:

The nineteenth-century novel has exercised a very powerful influence on reader and writer alike in the contemporary world. And this is not surprising after all since the rise of the novel in its conventional and historical mould coincides in Europe with states of society which were involved in consolidating their class and other vested interests. … The novel of persuasion rests on grounds of apparent common sense: a certain “selection” is made by the writer, the selection of items, manners, uniform conversation, historical situations, etc., all lending themselves to build and present an individual span of life which yields self-conscious and fashionable moralities. The tension which emerges is the tension of individuals—great or small—on an accepted plane of society we are persuaded has an inevitable existence.

(TWS, p. 29)

No such “inevitable existence,” Harris is insisting, does in fact exist. Thus his work has much to do with catastrophe or cataclysm, the undermining of any sense of a stable, self-sufficient order of things, especially where that order is of a social or of a political sort. In the Author's Note written in 1973 to preface the paperback edition of the novel, Harris responded to the question of the book's relationship to political and economic developments in British Guiana over the past forty or so years by speaking of a predicament in which “the imagination is cornered by the very claims of historical narrative to be identical with universality” and of “the necessary breakdown of historical and economic categories.” He goes on to argue that man “seems therefore to possess a passion to caricature history in his own body” and that “from this ground of loss one undermines given categories.”

Some such refusal to identify the boundaries of reality with those of social, political, and economic events is what has led Harris to condemn the protest novel as a mere extension of the novel of persuasion. The protest novel, he argues, perpetuates the same basic materialist assumptions—that man lives by bread and by bread alone—as those which uphold the social order it seeks to reform. By appealing to no reach of experience beyond the social, the economic, or the political, the protest novel invests, as it were, in the sense of deprivation it seeks to bring to an end. Harris therefore concerns himself not with protest as much as with the exploration of unsuspected levels of fulfillment,5 as in his second novel The Far Journey of Oudin, about which Kenneth Ramchand, much to the point being made here, remarks:

Two versions of Oudin's life take shape: there is the socially realistic figure who suffers as a slave in an oppressive social order, and who dies having covenanted even his unborn child to the grasping Ram; and there is the god-like inheritor of the kingdom who fulfills destiny by abducting the virgin Beti, a bride and prize coveted by Ram. The two Oudins are evoked with equal credibility, both stories residing in the same events. Like Blake in the two “Holy Thursday” poems, Harris shows and responds to the coexistence of different conditions—the meek being overwhelmed by the earth, but inheriting it at the same time. Through imaginative fictions it is possible to remember that no social order is inevitable and ultimate, and that the “individual span of life” need not be identified with the most oppressive of its possibilities.6

In The Eye of the Scarecrow this sort of insistence takes the form of Anthrop's “miraculous” ability, in the midst of an economic depression, to come up with his rent each month. The narrator, on one of his grandfather's rent-collecting missions, peers into Anthrop's apartment and glimpses “the subterranean anatomy of revolution … the treasure of immateriality” (ES, pp. 31–32). It is here that the second of the book's recurrent quotations of Christ's words to Simon Peter occurs: “In my Father's house are many mansions.” There is more to experience, Harris is pretty obviously saying, than that which meets the eye. The ability of the Anthrops—who are referred to as a “family of symbolic tenants”—to pay their monthly rent serves to sabotage any social-realist appropriation of their ordeal. In one of the novel's numerous self-reflexive moments, this monthly “miracle” is likened to the freedom of art, to the spiritualist unruliness or mercuriality which makes for the liveliness (or aliveness) peculiar to imaginative works:

And there was Anthrop, after all, the head of one family, who miraculously, it seemed, overcame circumstance and settled with him on each occasion he visited. In truth my grandfather was beginning almost to enjoy (though he would never have confessed this) the paradox of it all in the way an artist may grow in awe of the train of his unpredictable material when it becomes capable of the unique momentum of acquiring its own godlike stamp and redeeming character of life.

(ES, p. 31)

What might then be called a “miraculous” realism seems to be what Harris' work is about: “an open dialogue within which a free construction of events will emerge in the medium of phenomenal associations all expanding into a mental distinction and life of their own” (ES, p. 13).


The specifics of the book's “curious baptism,” the nonlinear but highly resonant meanderings to which it gives rise, are of a peculiar enough sort, I think, to warrant a somewhat lengthy summing up of what goes on. The novel is divided into three “books.” Book I, entitled “The Visionary Company,” is made up of journal entries, the first dated 25–26 December 1963, the last 1 March–7 May 1964. The narrator, writing in London, recollects certain events from his childhood and youth in Guiana between the years 1929 and 1948 (the latter the year of the Guiana Strike). These recollections have largely to do with a number of visionary experiences: the “incredible image of a scarecrow” the narrator momentarily glimpses on his friend L——'s face; the dream of a windowless secret apartment in what appears to be either his grandfather's lodge or L——'s engineering office, this black room turning out to be the “revolutionary goal” he pursues; “the scarecrow of shadow alighting for a flashing moment” upon the funeral procession for a group of slain strikers as the procession merges or collides with a possibly empty “poor man's hearse” driven by two laughing riders; intimations of a hanging in his grandfather's garden; a rent-collecting visit, during the economic slump of the twenties, to a tenement range owned by his grandfather, where none of the tenants, because of the depression, are able to pay the rent—none, that is, except Anthrop, whose face “self-reverses” the image of his twin infants into that of the two laughing hearse riders; and so forth. On a more (but only slightly more) literal level, an account is given of the narrator's premeditated involuntary pushing of L—— into the East Street canal, this incident reverberating throughout the novel's repeated concern with the paradox of a compulsory freedom.7 Book I concludes with evocations of the narrator's mood and thoughts upon his release, in 1932 at the age of eleven, from the hospital following a month's convalescence in the wake of a serious, nearly fatal illness.

Book II is called “Genesis” and takes up where Book I leaves off, in the garden one afternoon a month after the narrator's return from the hospital, where he and L—— fashion figures out of lumps of mud. A breasted mother-figure molded by L—— sparks a drift of dreamlike transformations wherein the narrator's recollected glimpse of his mother through the partly open door of her room, weeping and being spoken to by his grandparents, recalls the visit to Anthrop's room and the glimpse of his half-naked wife, a twin infant at each breast, through the open door. That night the narrator dreams of his own funeral and of Anthrop's unexpected encounter with his (Anthrop's) twin brother, a wealthy civil engineer who resembles L——'s father, rumor having it that L——'s dead mother had all along been engineer Anthrop's secret mistress. The narrator wakes to find his own mother on the bed beside him, having come in response to the cry he let out while asleep, and sees that she too has been weeping over the news of the drowning of his stepfather, an engineer, in a jungle in the interior. It turns out that the narrator's actual father, also an engineer, was convicted of and executed for murder in this very jungle at about the same time the narrator was being born in 1921, and that the stepfather's expedition there eleven years later was in part an attempt to uncover facts which would prove that the father had been framed. Some years later (in 1944 it appears, though this is not altogether clear—perhaps 1948) the narrator sets out for this jungle with L——, the engineer in charge of the expedition to relocate a lost mining town called Raven's Head, where enormous gold deposits are expected to be found. (L——'s motives are mercenary and technical while the narrator's search is for proof of his father's innocence.) The second half of Book II has to do, in typically elliptical fashion, with this expedition, especially the narrator's and L——'s sexual sharing of the whore Hebra, the tooth-mother namesake of Raven's Head. (The town is also, that is, known as Hebra's Town—as Hebra is also known as Raven's Head.)

Book III, “Raven's Head,” opens with the horse and carriage (in which sit an old man and a young boy) of the Ancient of Days at the north gate, the Gateway of Fear, into Raven's Head. Something frightens the horse, causing it to rear and come close to turning the carriage over. Approaching the town through the south gateway, Hebra's Gate, on the other hand, the driver of a motor-driven vehicle runs over a cow, killing it but also demolishing the vehicle, and is taken in by the old man and the young boy (the former “clothed now in shepherd's rags” and the latter his grandson), who share their evening meal with him. The driver turns out to be an engineer, with a sense of self-possession reminiscent of L——'s; a sense of self-possession, however, to which the collision does irreparable harm: “the necessity had now been born (the driver groaned with distaste) to feed himself and clothe himself upon eyes of mineral substitution; the artist's mask, the animal or plant of camouflage and vision” (ES, p. 73)—the Eye of the Scarecrow, in short. The writing continues with a diary entry dated 30 July 1964, the first dated entry since Book I, in which the crash of a reconnaissance vehicle (“car, plane, call it what you will”) carrying the narrator and L—— north of Raven's Head is brought to light. As a result of this crash and presumed death of the narrator, L—— is put on trial and convicted of murder, his jealous quarrel with the narrator over Hebra the day before the crash constituting the most damaging piece of evidence against him. The narrator in the meantime takes nine months to find his way through the jungle, arriving just in time to prove that he is not in fact dead, much less murdered, and thus bring about L——'s release from the prison hospital. The writing moves now into a series of visions: a descent into the Raven's Head canal, a confrontation with a shoe salesman, and so forth. This is followed by a letter dated 14–15 August 1964 addressed to L—— at Raven's Head, containing Scarecrow's confession to strangling Hebra and signed “Idiot Nameless”; in turn followed by a meditation on murder, consciousness, freedom, and space. Next, a “Manifesto of the Unborn State of Exile” in the form of another letter to L——, in which the narrator holds forth on language, poetry, memory, and the need for a “crumbling of the will” into self-exile; followed by a section called “The Black Rooms” in which passages from Book I and Book II are quoted, and finally a “Postscript of Faith in Dark Room of Identity” in the form, again, of a letter to L——, ending on the subject of prayer and in the form of a prayer (“Amen. Amen.”), signed “Idiot Nameless” and dated 25 September 1964.

So ends the novel. Many questions, of course, remain unanswered, and the various threads of possible plot are left unresolved. Resolution, in fact, has given way to resonance, the writing repeatedly declaring its occasion to be the demise of any resolute sense of what occurred. In this way the book is relentlessly circular and anticlimactic, insistent to the end upon the “void in conventional memory” to which it owes its form. One important aspect of this breakdown or void (and the feature which most strongly illustrates the substitution of resonance for resolution in the novel) is Harris' dismantling of the notion of character. The novel of persuasion, he tell us, is preoccupied with valorizing the sovereign, self-contained individual:

The consolidation of character is, to a major extent, the pre-occupation of most novelists who work in the twentieth century within the framework of the nineteenth-century novel. … As a result “character” in the novel rests more or less on the self-sufficient individual—on elements of “persuasion” (a refined or liberal persuasion at best in the spirit of the philosopher Whitehead) rather than “dialogue” or “dialectic” in the profound and unpredictable sense of person which Martin Buber, for example, evokes.

(TWS, pp. 28–29)

In The Eye of the Scarecrow, on the other hand, the narrator at one point describes the beginning of a breakdown of his previous (“persuasive”) view of people. He began, he says, to move away from the sense of each person as being self-contained and consistently what he or she appeared or was supposed to be:

And I began to discover a force of obsession in things I had only dimly dreamt before (it seemed to me now) to question, things and persons I had accepted too easily (it seemed now, once again) for what they were supposed to be and what they were instinctively supposed not to be. Things and persons whose life of obsession lay less within themselves and more within myself, within my lack of a universal conception.

(ES, p. 53)

The puzzling resonances which recur throughout the novel have to do with the fact that, as in, say, Bergman's Persona or Altman's Three Women, identities overlap.

Take the relationship between L—— and the narrator, for example, a relationship which is at first described by way of a contrast recalling the above opposition between self-sufficiency on the one hand and unpredictability on the other:

L—— and I … were to enjoy the enigma of being related. … He would acquire a reputation for sober and matchless good sense, judgment, responsibility while I would be the striking unpredictable one. He would never come to blame anyone for the evil which happened to him—as I was often religiously inclined to do.

(ES, p. 40)

This contrast is exemplified by the incident in which the narrator pushes L—— into the East Street canal. While the narrator is quick to suggest that he did so at the prompting of some force outside his control, L—— does just the opposite in assuming responsibility for something he in fact did not do: “When asked by my grandfather to tell what had actually happened he declared he had suddenly slipped and fallen of his own accord. He did not dare to dream anyone (least of all myself) had in reality given him the slightest push” (ES, p. 26). L——, then, is the “self-sufficient individual,” impervious, as far as he's concerned, to all outside influence and thus willing to take the blame for whatever befalls him:

And if indeed any further blame was necessary, the misjudgement or misconception of reality—he agreed—then he—because of his insusceptibility to a continuing motion or cause outside of himself (or, in other words, because of his susceptibility to himself as his own faulty agent)—must suffer the blame, in terms of his own absolute logic of context, solely, in the numb fixture of himself. He was trapped within the riddle of his own leaden machinery—the riddle of the fixed instincts.

(ES, p. 58)

The self-reflexivity of the novel again reveals itself in that Harris appears to be using L—— and the narrator to personify two opposing novelistic tendencies (the persuasive and the dialectical, respectively), as well as the differing senses of character to which these tendencies give rise.

But rather than (as he would put it) consolidate the differences between L—— and the narrator, Harris gradually, owing to his commitment to dialogue or dialectic, brings off a sharing of characteristics between the two, a confounding of identities. Although the driver who runs into the cow in Book III remains nameless, his presumption of his own self-sufficiency or self-possession and his inability to concede the possibility of having been “pushed” into what's occurred very much recall L——:

… he bargained to rule himself—and be ruled by himself—by allowing of no sensible proportion except in his own standing or stumbling experience of it. And for this reason he did not know how to begin to accept the possibility that he was being counselled or pushed, wittingly and unwittingly, fairly and unfairly, by someone and something other than himself.

(ES, p. 69)

However, the trauma of his collision with the cow initiates a conversion, Harris' description of which makes apparently significant use of the words persuasion and dialogue: “And yet—now for the first time he was not so sure. The counsellors of past and present generations might possess … an element of indistinct dialogue which survived within their vociferous arts of force and persuasion” (ES, p. 69). The driver, who, again resembling L——, is an engineer, undergoes a trial of faith which opens up a certain artistic impulse, the very impulse of which Harris or the narrator would have The Eye of the Scarecrow be an instance. He's described, that is, not only as at last acknowledging the possibility of his having been pushed, but also as envisioning the necessity of himself becoming the one who pushes (i.e., becoming the narrator or like the narrator):

He would turn then, out of a curious despair, to someone or something he may have always unconsciously disregarded and despised, someone or something he would find himself driven now to push into the religious obscurity of moon or canal, the realm or depth of place he could not yet truly visualize for himself; someone who would appear surprisingly intact and whole, residual but unaffected by the landscape of fact, totally without—at that stage—the consciousness of having been actually set in motion or conscripted or wounded by another in the way the driver himself had once been free of such a dubious conviction.

(ES, pp. 73–74)

Meanwhile, the narrator grows less and less able to distinguish himself from L——. As early as Book II he acknowledges, in his dream of L——'s mother, his own susceptibility to self-censure, a characteristic presumably monopolized by L——:

I pushed her and she fell into these uninspired arms, the engineer of depth, and dissolved into the scaffold of one drowned reflective self to my sudden indescribable horror. I heard myself shout (though scarcely able to believe my own ears) that it was all my fault.

(ES, p. 46)

Later, in describing the events surrounding and subsequent to the crash in Book III, he has trouble getting his pronouns right:

Was it he who crept and crawled that last mile to save me or I to unlock him? I still like to think it was I who saved L——'s life, and not he mine, in the nick of time. … For on that afternoon when I (it was on the tip of my tongue to say he) succeeded—more dead than alive—in finding a way through the jungle, nine months after I had been left for dead, I arrived in time to prove to the authorities I was a living soul and not the dead beast they swore they had seen.

L—— was released from the prison hospital (which was all that was standing between him and execution), the conviction against him quashed. The violent quarrel we had had over the woman Hebra the day before I was killed, so it was consistently reported, had weighed heavily against me (my mind still wanders in a trap); I should have said—against him.

(ES, pp. 77–78)

The two pages following this passage aggravate this confusion. The description of a descent (the narrator's presumably) into the Raven's Head canal cannot help but recall L——'s earlier plunge into the East Street canal. Like the earlier plunge, this one is described as an involuntary one:

I saw myself moving away from myself within a dimension over which I appeared to have little control. … I was situated, I discerned, not beneath but above the northern gateway of Raven's Head canal and I recalled—as I became aware of biting into the food in my mouth—how I had walked away helplessly and fearfully from myself only a moment ago, descended into the canal, crossed an ageless pit, and recrossed back to where now once again I stood.

(ES, pp. 79–80)

By this point the question of identity is acknowledged to be an open, unanswerable one: “Whoever I was …” (ES, p. 80). The unmistakable resonances and resemblances between events, however, raise the question of whether L—— and the narrator might be different aspects of the same person, or perhaps separate but interchangeable persons.

Towards the end of the novel the narrator, in one of his letters to L——, affirms this possibility, introducing in doing so, however, a further extension of the range of possible identifications:

It is as if sometimes (I hope you will forgive me) I have an involuntary but acute awareness of changing places with you. And for a fraction of an instant I am filled with a terrible dread of place and of standing irrevocably in your shoes.

(ES, p. 100)

The last three words of this passage resound with Harris' repeated punning on the word stepfather throughout the novel, on the fact that the narrator, in undertaking the expedition to Raven's Head, is following in his father's (as well as his stepfather's) footsteps—in his shoes as it were. The implication is that in doing so he becomes a surrogate father (a stepfather) for himself:

L—— and I suddenly stumbled upon the faint but “timeless” footprints of a self-created self—the step-father for whom my mother wept (as if she had been weeping for me as well as for him all the time). … he had set foot into the past in search of proof of another's (or was it my own?) disfigured innocence.

(ES, pp. 47–48; Harris' italics)

Thus the words in your shoes in the letter to L—— serve to strengthen earlier suggestions that the stepfather, like L——, may be no more than the narrator's self-projection. In Book II there's a passage in which the narrator not only confuses himself with his stepfather but also describes the stepfather's expedition to Raven's Head in terms which recall L——'s descent into the East Street canal:

I was influenced as well by my mother's reflection embodied within an unreasoning tradition of fear: fear that my unwelcome (stepfather's) attachment to her (was it true or not that he had been my own father's engineering colleague and friend?) may have compelled him—in order to win from the family of his adoption their everlasting gratitude and affection—to leave his well-ordered camp and plunge into the closed forbidden jurisdiction of the past in search of my open gauge and sceptical grain of fact.

(ES, p. 56; Harris' italics)

The phrase in search of my open gauge seems intent on recalling the fact that the narrator pushes L—— into the canal in order to measure (to use L—— as a gauge with which to measure) the water's depth. Again similar to L——, the stepfather is described as having been “compelled” (pushed) into his “plunge” into Raven's Head. Not to mention the fact that the stepfather, like L——, is an engineer. It would thus appear that all three of them (the stepfather, the narrator, and L——) are interchangeable: “self-revolving parts in endless dialogue” (ES, p. 70).

The foregoing should suffice to make the point that the concept of character operative in The Eye of the Scarecrow is quite antithetical to that of the conventional novel. The proliferation of resemblances and overlaps is in fact more dizzying in the sustained text of the novel than the above suggests. Harris has spoken of a “possible revolution in the novel—fulfillment rather than consolidation” (TWS, p. 28; Harris' italics). By this he means that rather than consolidate character he seeks to diffuse or disperse it, to treat it as projective, expansive, and dynamic rather than contractive (also contractual) and static. He prefers the term person to the word character:

In the epic and revolutionary novel of associations the characters are related within a personal capacity which works in a poetic and serial way so that a strange jigsaw is set in motion like a mysterious unity of animal and other substitutes within the person. Something which is quite different to the overelaboration of individual character within the conventional novel.

(TWS, p. 38)

His use of the term is meant to convey an archetypal or phylogenic wholeness in which the full range of what it is to be human is identified with—something like the concept of the Universal Man one encounters in the spiritualist traditions (Adam Qadmon in the Qabala, Wang among the Taoists, Manu in the Hindu Vedas, El-Insānul-kāmil in Sufi belief, etc.)—the “universal conception” represented by Anthrop and the transcendence of individual identity represented by Idiot Nameless. What is involved is a sense of Self vastly more inclusive than that of the individual defined by societal norms and social interactions (than that dimension of character, that is, to which the novel has traditionally limited itself). In my Father's house are many mansions.


The novel's repeated insistence upon “many mansions” suggests a variegated existence—“variegated blood” or “mansions of blood” (ES, pp. 83, 91)—which fulfills itself according to no fixed, uniform scale of values but is instead a complex occasion of events which intimates riches whose proper assessment or enjoyment lies in “the strength to remain within the gratifying spirit of anomaly” (ES, p. 34). The sense of fulfillment to which Harris commits his work is thus a negative or paradoxical one, rooted in a numinous experience of “deprivation”—“one simulates dying in order to live” (ES, p. 23)—akin, as I have already suggested, to the estrangement or allogenesis of gnosticism. Henry Corbin, from whose Avicenna and the Visionary Recital I have gotten this notion of gnostic estrangement—“The sense of being a Stranger is certainly the dominant feeling in every gnostic, the feeling that gives his consciousness its power of exaltation”—makes a further comment I find applicable to Harris' work. Elaborating upon the gnostic's experience of estrangement, Corbin introduces the notion of “dualitude,” a notion which accords well with Harris' preponderant use of the words dialogue and twin throughout the novel (Anthrop's twin infants and his wealthy twin brother, L—— and the narrator referred to as Hebra's twins, “the dreamer's twin obsession,” “the true beginnings of possible dialogue,” etc.):

At the moment when the soul discovers itself to be a stranger and alone in a world formerly familiar, a personal figure appears on its horizon, a figure that announces itself to the soul personally because it symbolizes with the soul's most intimate depths. In other words, the soul discovers itself to be the earthly counterpart of another being with which it forms a totality that is dual in structure. The two elements of this dualitude may be called the ego and the Self, or the transcendent celestial Self and the earthly Self, or by still other names. It is from this transcendent Self that the soul originates in the past of metahistory; this Self had become strange to it while the soul slumbered in the world of ordinary consciousness; but it ceases to be strange to it at the moment when the soul in turn feels itself a stranger in this world.8

Corbin refers to this figure as the Guide, the initiatic glimpse of whom awakens the soul to its coexistent other life. In Harris' novel this harbinger of otherness is referred to as the Scarecrow and is the it in the passage describing the unnamed driver's conversion following his collision with the cow:

It was clothing him with the necessity of acknowledging the cloak of otherness, retirement into so little and obscurity of movement into so much: the conviction drove him—and had been driving him all along though he had never seen it—into a sphere of reduction and an arm of extensive feeling; the meeting ground of two, and he was indelibly associated with one.It was both sliding rule and sliding scale of place with a reflex not merely of its own but of unpredictable room for transaction between TWO.

(ES, pp. 74–75)

The Scarecrow is a rather complicated and, in a sense, contradictory figure, in that it simultaneously announces and annuls the ego's estrangement. (The narrator, for example, acknowledges his “awareness of changing places with” L—— only after Scarecrow has come forth: “His confession it is which frees us now to make ours—if we wish” [ES, p. 85].) It alerts the ego to its separation from the world, conscripting that alienation as evidence of the ego's simultaneous though unconscious communion with the Self. This communion thus become conscious, the rift between the ego and the world subsides in the face of the all-consuming unity of the Self, the nominal individual become “Idiot Nameless.” The Scarecrow can thus be said to be the transcendent synthesis of every thesis and antithesis constitutive of worldly dialogue, IT the transcendent conjunction of whatever terms engage as TWO. Harris accordingly describes the Scarecrow as looking in two directions at the same time:

It was a strange company—TWO and IT—though who it was no one could say: a crumbling scarecrow perhaps, the key to … ? It possessed nevertheless a backbone and a single eye which turned and looked—without appearing to make any effort to see—both ways in the same blank crude instant.

(ES, p. 75)

The Scarecrow's complexity thus has to do with the fact that it serves as a figure of mediation (between the ego and the world, the ego and the Self, the Self and the world, unity and separation, one and two, L—— and the narrator, etc.), as well as that it is both mediator and mediated outcome. Mediation is suggested by the very fact of what a scarecrow is: a thing disguised as a person, a man-thing. The suggestion is furthered by the fact that what supports the scarecrow are two sticks in the form of a cross, the cross, of course, being an archetypal symbol of the intersection of (hence mediation between) two contrasting realms—the celestial and the earthly most often—symbolized by its vertical and horizontal lines. The cross is also suggestive of Jesus Christ, a mediator in the sense of being a man-god as well as God's messenger among men. Several passages in the novel do in fact fairly explicitly bring out the analogy between the Scarecrow and Christ. Shortly following a passage concerning “the innocent unborn” soul's indictment for murder, the narrator remarks, “But would not someone always be found—in the midst of the ‘dead’ seal and ransom of everything—to subscribe—without even knowing how or why—to the ‘living’ mutilation of the scarecrow?” (ES, p. 87). (The phrase without even knowing how or why recall's Christ's insistence that his crucifiers knew not what they did.) The Scarecrow is later described as dying something of a martyr's death: “Poor Scarecrow! it was his confession—he said he strangled her—which saved my neck. … the Scarecrow (with which I had invested myself as if I were now intent on breaking through from within) accepted the sentence of death passed on him” (ES, pp. 84, 89). Finally, the narrator says to L—— at one point, “Someone had died for us, you said” (ES, p. 103). As a Christlike figure the Scarecrow mediates between guilt and innocence, complicity and estrangement, and is “the conjunctive witness” (ES, p. 70) to both immanence and otherness, disclosing otherworldliness on the earthly plane.

The Scarecrow, then, is not so much a thing as a process—a dialectical process whose dynamics obscure distinctions to evoke an “almost unendurable unity, silence and sacrifice” (ES, p. 47). This unity, notwithstanding the fulfillment (in the concrete sense of a plenum or a making full) that it is, is described in terms of deprivation or annihilation, since it involves the collapse or sacrifice of one's ordinary sense of reality. This is a fairly persistent motif in Harris' work, so it is not surprising to find some of the most succinct expressions of it as early as Palace of the Peacock: “The unceasing reflection of themselves in each other made them see themselves everywhere save where they thought they had always stood” (PP, p. 100). Or: “All he knew was the misty sense of devastating thoroughness, completion and endless compassion—so far-reaching and distant and all-embracing and still remote, it amounted to nothingness again” (PP, p. 129). Hence in The Eye of the Scarecrow:

an equation—destined to salvage a certain area of recollection—began to form—the sweep of nothing equals everything. Or to put it in a personal nutshell—the extinction or rekindling of one confirms a witness either way which equals two.

The CRASH—which I am now aware demolished not only their conventional presence but my fixed senses as well of room and absence from them—broke through to a passage of long-lost existence wherein the total deprivation of every clipped assumption of relative circumstance took ages to grow into the living fable of reality.

(ES, pp. 78–79)

The paradoxical equation of plenitude with emptiness, all with nothing, is typical of the language of mysticism, and is used to signify the obliteration of the ego as well as of its subject-object perceptions of the world during the experience of undifferentiated Being. St. Teresa's “swoon,” the anonymous fourteenth-century mystic's “cloud of unknowing,” and the Buddhist “Void” are all analogues of what Harris variously calls “the crash,” “the dark room of identity” and “the unborn state of exile”—an experience of ego-loss and “loss of orientation” describable in literary terms as what Keats meant by Negative Capability. (Harris refers to Keats's notion at the beginning of his essay “The Phenomenal Legacy.”) Hence the narrator writes to L——, “The key to my present meaning lies in a crumbling of the will which may be seen in another sense as the breakdown of a series of tyrannous conception or misconception—the cruel strength of individual legacy” (ES, p. 68). This “crumbling of the will,” I would like to suggest, gets enacted in the realm of language. The writing does that of which the Scarecrow (which is also at one point described as “crumbling”) is merely a symbol.

What I mean by the crumbling of the will as enacted in language can be defined by reference to two passages in Octavio Paz's The Bow and the Lyre, a book whose insights and assertions are so consistently in line with Harris' as to amount to an unwitting gloss on the latter's work.9 For Paz, as for Harris, poetry is a call to and from otherness, a vocation of otherness. Poetic creation or inspiration epitomizes that uselessness of will which hurls one beyond oneself “to the other shore” (cf. ES, pp. 79–80, for Harris's use of the same image): “The will is inextricably mingled with other forces … at the moment of poetic creation. Freedom and fatality rendezvous in man” (BL, p. 107). Language itself is one of these “other forces,” which is why one can speak of an extinction of the will being enacted linguistically. Paz suggests that while the ordinary sense of language conceives (or, as Harris would say, misconceives) it as a tool at the disposal or service of its user's will, the poet submits to language as to a master:

Each time we are served by words, we mutilate them. But the poet is not served by words. He is their servant. In serving them, he returns them to the plenitude of their nature, makes them recover their being. Thanks to poetry, language reconquers its original state. First, its plastic and sonorous values, generally disdained by thought; next, the affective values; and, finally, the expressive ones. … The word, in itself, is a plurality of meanings. If by the action of poetry the word recovers its original nature—that is to say, its possibility of meaning two or more things at the same time—the poem seems to deny the very essence of language: meaning or sense.

(BL, p. 37)

Here again is the conjunction of plenitude with deprivation, in the sense that this submission to the polysemous fullness of the word entails the eclipse of the world of conventional meaning. Harris refers to this fullness/eclipse as “the Well of Silence.”

The “Manifesto of the Unborn State of Exile” is perhaps the apex of The Eye of the Scarecrow's self-reflexivity, as the word manifesto would tend to suggest. Its first two paragraphs are worth quoting in full, what they have to say about language being essential to an understanding of Harris' style. Language is held by Harris to be the medium for the enactment or expression of what the Scarecrow represents—a visionary capacity for multiple perspectives:

Language is one's medium of the vision of consciousness. There are other ways—shall I say—of arousing this vision. But language alone can express (in a way which goes beyond any physical or vocal attempt) the sheer—the ultimate “silent” and “immaterial” complexity of arousal. Whatever sympathy one may feel for a concrete poetry—where physical objects are used and adopted—the fact remains (in my estimation) that the original grain or grains of language cannot be trapped or proven. It is the sheer mystery—the impossibility of trapping its own grain—on which poetry lives and thrives. And this is the stuff of one's essential understanding of the reality of the original Word, the Well of Silence. Which is concerned with a genuine sourcelessness, a fluid logic of image. So that any genuine act of possession by one's inner eye is a subtle dispersal of illusory fact, dispossession of one's outer or physical eye.

The stillness of consciousness (which stillness is always penetrating itself in its own activity) is not of the physical world. In the same way the trespass of consciousness is not the same movement one consumes with a physical immediacy, apprehension, sense. The subtle logic of image and transformation in consciousness of all one's apparent and stable and persuasive functions is the meaning of language. For language because of its untrappable source transforms—in a terrifying well-nigh unendurable perspective—every subjective block and fixture of capacity. In my Father's house are many mansions.

(ES, pp. 95–96)

This “many-mansioned” fullness corresponds to the Palace of the Peacock or the cauda pavonis of alchemy which Harris describes as “the colours of the peacock which may be equated with all the variable possibilities or colours of fulfillment we can never totally realise.”10 (The journey to Raven's Head to “the unborn state of exile” is also an alchemical quest for lost gold deposits on L——'s part and for regeneration or “disfigured innocence” on the narrator's part.)

The most obvious example of Harris' submission to the word's plurality of meanings is the recurrent punning one encounters throughout the novel, plays on the words stepfather, premise, conception, misconception, and conviction being the most prominent. There are others, however, as when the narrator “deciphers” the name of his nurse: “Her name was Cromwell or Crumbwell or the crumb (of reality)—WHICH—MAKES—WELL” (ES, p. 22), anticipating the untrappable grain or crumb which makes for the Well of Silence which is the original Word. Later, the word execution is invested with more than one meaning as L——'s use of it in the sense of a technical feat or accomplishment coincides with the narrator's thoughts on his father's hanging. L—— and the narrator are inspecting a bridge the narrator's stepfather built:

he [L——] was pointing to the engineering merits of the bridge, the excellence and height of the site, the outcrops of rock in which the steel cable on either side was embedded. … (I myself was staring into the river and I wondered if it was upon the very plank on which I stood he had been trapped, stunned). The execution was perfect, L—— said. The remark struck me in a flash: I gave an incredible start (as if I had been immersed very deeply, thinking, but not of my stepfather's bridge at all) and pulled my gaze away from the water. The bridge was both a trapdoor and a poem.

(ES, pp. 49–50)

The narrator's obsession with his father's execution later tinges the word sentence in such a way that it refers to the imposition of a punishment or penalty as well as to a unit of speech. He says of L——:

he fulfilled the most negative role of all—the self-imposed ratification of every closed sentence I could not truly accept and which I found myself helplessly probing in order to uncover wherein lay the movement of original compassion, the furthest point and agency of reason and the source of an active responsible spiritual (L—— loathed the word) tradition still.

(ES, p. 59)

This particular instance of punning has the added significance of connecting the narrator's nonacceptance of worldly justice (his father's presumed guilt) with Harris' discontent with the “closed” or “persuasive” sentence.

Harris' labyrinthine sentences, that is, stylistically embody the narrator's quest for innocence or immortality, for an open “movement of original compassion.” These sentences tend to be more spatial than linear, rarely content with confining themselves to a single line of argument or exposition but instead allowing for tangential pursuits of counterpoint, qualification, periphrasis, apposition, elaboration, and so forth, suggesting eternity or immortality by threatening to never end:

But even as I struggled to find a way of new conviction other than the ancient riddle of protest I knew the changeless ground of it all would yield ultimately, of its own accord, when it succeeded in marrying the fearful strength of the past to the infant freedom of choice which was still weak in the conviction of the present and the future: my own impulsive rein of eagerness and repulsive light of action grew brutally fitful and restrictive as the uncertain spring of day—I was pushing her (I was aware of a contrary rebuke and stillness in the heart of crude action)—pushing her, nevertheless, even as I had involuntarily pushed him, her son, into the canal and to the brink of his (and her) total self-acceptance, total responsibility for my bewildered self belonging to both sides of the blanket, illegitimate one of present speculation and legitimate reinforcement to escape from the prison of past knowledge.

(ES, pp. 45–46)

Harris' tendency to extend rather than restrict a sentence's range of meaning is also evident in the fact that he often interjects an alternative word which, rather than being synonymous with the word whose place in the sentence it is allowed to share, introduces an altogether different, if not opposite, meaning or sense. Often the choice of the alternative word seems to be primarily a matter of similarity of sound: “Anything to circumscribe their own fear of explosive nature in one and to relieve (or relive) their helplessness through another” (ES, p. 78). One finds the same reliance on homophony in such pairings as that of invented with inverted (ES, p. 90) and that of prison with person (ES, p. 91). Here, of course, relieve and relive pretty much function as antonyms. Such conjunctions of conflicting meanings exemplify the Scarecrow's ability to look in opposite directions at the same time and are a characteristic feature of Harris' prose. Hence one reads of “a wayward flock, wayward yet still shepherded” (ES, p. 13), “a strange inviting and yet curiously uninviting thought” (ES, p. 49), “something which was much more and so much less than any vision of responsibility” (ES, p. 54), “the bodily (or bodiless) mystery of mysteries” (ES, p. 69), a “vulnerable (or was it invulnerable?) carriage of secrets” (ES, p. 70), a “swollen, still shrunken square of flesh” (ES, p. 91), and so forth.

Harris' cauda pavonis evokes its “almost unendurable unity” also by way of what he refers to in the Metaphysical poets as “a range of potency of association in which nothing is ultimately alien.” At one point Donne says to the narrator in Palace of the Peacock, “Every boundary line is a myth” (PP, p. 17). What Harris' “subtle logic of image and transformation” does is precisely violate or transgress (hence the recurrence of the word trespass throughout The Eye of the Scarecrow) the ostensible or conventional boundaries between things, persons, places, etc. Images such as that of “beaked eyes” (ES, p. 64) or that of a “dripping mist or sweat of proportion” (ES, p. 94) recall Surrealism in their abrupt yoking together of disparate phenomena. What Harris calls “pace and new dimension in a certain kind of imaginative fiction” in his Author's Note is the ability to move nimbly through what are otherwise taken to be discontinuous realms of experience: “it was filled with a rust-coloured light like ammunition fired from distant stars, naked metallic rose, neither iron nor bronze nor gold: the sleep of an immaterial unsupported element: the armour of the poor” (ES, pp. 22–23). Related to this quickness and extensive reach of image is Harris' ability to confer, in an almost casual way, cosmic or archetypal significance upon whatever he describes. Thus one encounters “celestial furniture,” “the scissors of the universe” and “a backcloth of stars” (ES, p. 44), a “supernatural driver” and a “supernatural horse” (ES, p. 63), or “numinous boulders” (ES, p. 68). Eternity is always nearby:

The incident occurred within a stone's throw of the ancient and modern riverwall, and the timeless river stood waiting to be discerned like a dark floating ball on which the lighted shadow of its own interior had formed itself into ships whose cargo was no less than the motion of the earth.

(ES, p. 64)

Language, Harris is repeatedly insisting, is the medium which allows such lightninglike leaps and such instantaneous bestowals of otherness (as when L——'s clothing, as he is pulled out of the East Street canal, is described as “wrinkled into the alien folds of another skin” [ES, p. 26]) to take place. Language is the vehicle (perhaps the “reconnaissance vehicle” the narrator declines to be specific about) of a visionary projection through time and space—of exile, dislocation, and ultimate reunion and of an othering or allogenesis which makes the narrator “a ghost returning to the past.”

The narrator, that is, dies into language and becomes Idiot Nameless, negatively capable of giving birth to his multifaceted Self. In place of some presumably “objective” train of events or configuration of facts to which the writing could be made to refer, Harris insists upon the factuality of the writing itself, upon writing as a live medium:

The medium of language, the poet's word (and this is essentially every man's true expression), is much more than a question of emotional and intellectual usage or documentary coinage. In fact to hint at a medium is to embrace a vision of patterns and capacities beneath and beyond every conventional game of one-sided meaning.

(TWS, p. 21)

Robbe-Grillet's remark that writing “is not a testimony offered in evidence concerning an external reality, but is its own reality” and his comment on his novel Jealousy are thus relevant here:

… it was absurd to suppose that in the novel Jealousy … there existed a clear and unambiguous order of events, one which was not that of the sentences of the book, as if I had diverted myself by mixing up a pre-established calendar the way one shuffles a deck of cards. … there existed for me no possible order outside of that of the book. The latter was not a narrative mingled with a simple anecdote external to itself, but again the very unfolding of a story which had no other reality than that of the narrative, an occurrence which functioned nowhere else except in the mind of the invisible narrator, in other words of the writer, and of the reader.11

This is the point made by the “Black Rooms”—which title suggests the windowless apartment the narrator calls his “revolutionary goal” in Book I—section of The Eye of the Scarecrow, the section in which Harris quotes passages from earlier portions of the text. In doing so he seems to be insisting upon the irreducibility or substantiality of the linguistic dimension in which the novel has its being, reifying its linguistic events as exactly that—events. This refusal to view writing or to allow it to be viewed as subservient to what is normally thought of as reality is exemplified further by Harris' Author's Note which, reminiscent of “The Black Rooms,” concludes with a lengthy quotation from the text of the novel, Harris again insistent that the reader deal with the density of the linguistic reality of which the book is composed, that no relief be sought outside the novel's primordially linguistic occasion.


The Eye of the Scarecrow initiates the mining of an intensely self-conscious vein in Wilson Harris' work. The act of writing is no longer transparent, a pane of glass to be overlooked or looked through, but instead calls attention to itself. For this reason most of the novels which follow it involve writers (nonprofessionals but nevertheless writers) as their protagonists. The Waiting Room takes the form of a “logbook” written by its heroine, Susan Forrestal, just as Companions of the Day and Night is presented as the posthumous publication of selections from the diaries and writings of one Idiot Nameless, a tourist whose dead body has been found at the base of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán in Mexico. Victor in Ascent to Omai writes poems, as does (or did) his father Adam, one of whose compositions, “Fetish,” is introduced as evidence in his defense during his trial for arson. Even the judge has literary intentions:

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. …

The truth is, I believe, that the novel has been conditioned for so long by comedy of manners, it overlooks an immense poetry of original and precarious features which, in fact, we can only begin to expose again by immersing ourselves in the actual difficulty of the task: by immersing ourselves in language as omen, as an equation of experience.

(AO, p. 96)

In Black Marsden Clive Goodrich, who turns up again as the editor of Idiot Nameless' manuscripts in Companions of the Day and Night, makes regular entries in a diary he calls his “book of Infinity.” Though the narrator usually refers to Goodrich as “he,” it becomes obvious at various points that he and Goodrich are one and the same. The novel, that is, oscillates between third-person and first-person narration. At one point it is suggested that Goodrich's “book of Infinity” is a continuation of The Eye of the Scarecrow:

My notes are corrections and revisions of an early “diary of Namless” in order to build a new eye of the Scarecrow or stage or theatre of essences occupied by a phenomenon of personality reaching back into the slate of childhood. Upon that slate Clive Goodrich is a given existence and other buried traumatic existences as well wrestling one with the other to express a caveat or unknown factor, an intuitive fire music within the hubris of assured character, assured rites of passage into death or namless town. … My book is not autobiographical. I lose myself in it, you see.

(BM, pp. 94, 96)

In these recent novels the writing insistently announces itself as the locus, dictation, or trace of a process of “self-abandonment and self-recognition” (ES, p. 108), a multiphasic projection of a spectral presence/ancestral absence, or of what Harris calls—and quotes from his own evocation of which to conclude his Author's Note—“the dazzling sleeper of spirit”:

The dazzling sleeper of spirit, exposed within the close elements, the refraction and proximity of sun and water, awoke all too suddenly and slid, in a flash, like speechless gunfire, from crown to toe, along the slowly reddening whiteness of the sand, turning darker still like blood as it fell; and ultimately black as the river-bottom descended, vanishing into a ripple, a dying footfall again, darting across the deep roadway of water and rising once more, distinct web or trace of animation upon a flank of stone.

(ES, p. 49)


  1. Works referred to will be cited by the following abbreviations: PP = Palace of the Peacock (London: Faber, 1960); ES = The Eye of the Scarecrow (London: Faber, 1965); AO = Ascent to Omai (London: Faber, 1970); BM = Black Marsden (London: Faber, 1972); and TWS = Tradition, the Writer and Society (London and Port of Spain: New Beacon, 1967).

  2. This is essentially the argument of Hena Maes-Jelinek in the essay, “The True Substance of Life: Wilson Harris' Palace of the Peacock,” in Common Wealth (Papers delivered at the Conference of Commonwealth Literature, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark, 26–30 April 1971), ed. Anna Rutherford (Aarhus: Akademisk Boghandel, n.d.), pp. 151–59.

  3. The choice of a Metaphysical poet hardly seems arbitrary when one considers Harris' remark in the essay “History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas”: “Haitian vodun—like West Indian and Guianese/Brazilian limbo—may well point to sleeping possibilities of drama and horizons of poetry, epic and novel, sculpture and painting—in short to a language of variables in art which would have a profoundly evolutionary cultural and philosophical significance for Caribbean man. Such new resources … are not foreign to English poetry except in the sense that these may be closer to the ‘metaphysical poets’—to a range and potency of association in which nothing is ultimately alien—of which Eliot speaks in his famous essay on ‘dissociation of sensibility’” (Caribbean Quarterly, 16 [1970], 14–15).

  4. This phrase appears in Harris' essay, “The Phenomenal Legacy,” in The Literary Half-Yearly (University of Mysore), 11 (1970), 1–6.

  5. Harris seems most of all impressed by and concerned with human resilience and durability. He speaks of “the transforming imperative to endure (which is the highest moral principle)” and remarks: “We have aged overnight in the knowledge that man lived on this planet twenty million years ago. The fact of our survival becomes increasingly one of both miraculous protection from wild animals and plants, and miraculous insight into the living void of the present or future as this unrolled itself in the heavens and within the catastrophic premises of the earth” (TWS, pp. 42, 63–64). Relatedly, the crash throws the narrator and L—— into what's called “a jungle of miraculous survival” (ES, p. 85).

  6. Kenneth Ramchand's Preface to the paperback edition of Palace of the Peacock (London: Faber, 1968).

  7. For example, “I was pushing her (was aware of a contrary rebuke and stillness in the heart of crude action)—pushing her, nevertheless, even as I had involuntarily pushed him, her son, into the canal” (ES, p. 45; Harris' italics). The later novel Black Marsden, between The Eye of the Scarecrow and which many parallels and continuities exist, perpetuates this motif of the involuntary push: “Everybody claims he is being pushed. Nobody ever does the pushing but everybody is being pushed” (BM, p. 73; Harris' italics).

  8. Henry Corbin, Avicenna and the Visionary Recital (New York: Pantheon, 1960), pp. 19–20.

  9. For example: “Poetry, if it is anything, is a revelation of the ‘essential heterogeneity of being,’ eroticism, ‘otherness.’ … the vision of our estrangement.” “If the word is the double of the cosmos, the realm of spiritual experience is language.” “All of us are alone, because all of us are two. The strange one, the other, is our double. Again and again we try to lay hold upon him. Again and again he eludes us. He has no face or name, but he is always there, hiding” (The Bow and the Lyre [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975], pp. 77, 70, 117; hereafter referred to as BL).

  10. Harris, “History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas,” p. 20.

  11. Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel (New York: Grove Press, 1965), pp. 153–54.

Further Reading

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James, Louis. “Structure and Vision in the Novels of Wilson Harris.” World Literature Written in English 22, no. 1 (spring 1983): 39–46.

James discusses the narrative structure in Harris's works, based on diagrams included in several of his novels.

Riach, Alan. “The Scottish Element in Wilson Harris.” Scottish Literary Journal 18, no. 1 (May 1991): 68–81.

Riach discusses the influence of Scottish culture on Black Marsden, highlighting the implicit affinities between Scotland and the Caribbean.

Urs, S. N. Vikram Raj. “Wilson Harris: A Major Voice from the Caribbean.” Commonwealth Quarterly 4, no. 15 (September 1980): 87–109.

Urs describes Harris's poetry as “a concrete realization of the concept of man,” and asserts that his poetry is a key to understanding Harris's entire literary oeuvre.

Webb, Barbara J. “History as Mythic Discourse: El siglo de las luces,Tumatumari, and La case du commandeur.” In Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction, pp. 85–128. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

Webb examines the narrative of the quest in El siglo de las luces, by Alejo Carpentier, Tumatumari, by Wilson Harris, and La case due commandeur, by Edouard Glissant.

Additional coverage of Harris's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 5; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65–68; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 16; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 11, 27, 69; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 117; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; and Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2.

Rolstan Adams (essay date April 1979)

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SOURCE: Adams, Rolstan. “Wilson Harris: The Pre-Novel Poet.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 13, no. 3 (April 1979): 71–85.

[In the following essay, Adams argues that Harris's early poetry acts as a key to understanding the images, themes, structures, and characters of his later novels.]

Between 1951 and 1955 Wilson Harris published three collections of poetry which, when closely scrutinized, provide a critic's best insights into the images, structures, and characters of Harris's novels published later. That there is a distinct thematic thread running through the poetry into the novels is little in doubt. And perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Harris's poetry is the imaginative process which is revealed in his development as a major prose-writer of the Caribbean. The collections of poetry are entitled Fetish (1951), Eternity to Season: Poems of Separation and Reunion (1954), and The Sun: Fourteen Poems in a Cycle (1955). The first two appeared under their own titles from the Georgetown Lithographic Press, under the auspices of the Miniature Poets Publishing Group. The Sun poems were published in 1955 in Kyk-over-al, Vol. 6, No. 2, edited by A. J. Seymour.

By the time these poems were published, it had seemed to Seymour, a fellow-poet, that Harris was going to be the first major Caribbean poet. But Harris became better known for his novels after he had written an autobiographical novel, Almanac of a Jumbi, later rewritten as Horseman, Pass By, and finally rewritten, after several drafts, as Palace of the Peacock.1 It is a great loss to Harrisian research that both early manuscripts of Palace are no longer extant. But one can follow Harris's early development fairly accurately from the poetry especially, and to a lesser degree from the short stories (snatches from the unpublished novels), and the essays, which were to be reprinted in the collection Tradition, the Writer and Society.2

The first poem of any significance is a ‘dramatic poem,’ thus described by the poet. Written as a small collection but not published as one, it exists in typescript and some of the individual poems were to form part of the Fetish volume. Entitled ‘Setting Sun’ it opens with a quotation from Leaves of Grass, an indication of Harris's overt concern with exalted poetic forms, and goes on in the poet's words to state its theme:

Philosophers have striven profoundly to justify the exploitation of man by man in doctrines of divine right for a privileged few.
          But all men are divine and as such have an equal share in burden and privilege in the mind of God.
          The ultimate justification or unity of man cannot be possible in other terms.
          Hierarchal or slave-king pyramid is a crumbling mould within grander moulds of the myth.

The time of the ‘action’ is given as 1947, the place ‘A village in British Guiana, South America.’ The personae of the poems are a curious mixture of village-folk and archetypical mythic figures:

Young man, a poet, dust-stained and earth-stained from the farms.
Patriarch, expressing his burning convictions.
Seer, seeing in a strolling guitarist, King David or Socrates or Rachmaninoff
                                                  in disguise.
Guitarist, a ghostly character passing my doorstep.
Dancers, who interpret life.
Young Mother, whose tragic lament may be interpreted as a summons to
                                                  build a new world to justify the prayers of her people.
Belated traveller, coming into the night like a last survivor of the living
Villagers, singing and posing a reflection of the moods of the people.

They are presented on a stage which is larger than life, in a world which combines reality and the mythic. The poem, calling for ‘clashing cymbals,’ lights, guitar music, fire, stars, ‘rugged accents,’ ‘swift and prophetic passion,’ is full of improbabilities as a small play, or even as recitative poetry. Yet in concept and in poetic vision it prefigures the way in which Harris is later to present his characters in the novels.

Harris describes ‘Setting Sun’ through the voice of the ‘Story-teller’ as:

A simple play, universal in implications,
setting out no moral.
It may be viewed as profane, that is
pointing to ultimate disaster; or divine,
that is, revealing an ultimate justification.

Here is the voice of the universalistic a-moral visionary, who becomes Donne in the final section of Palace of the Peacock, set amidst the archetypes of the collective unconscious, of which C. G. Jung informs us. Within the framework of the archetype Harris is attempting to locate his Guyana villagers as part of the human spirit which produces art and the humanities. For as the characters of the poem speak their lines, they are to be viewed as being transported out of the world of three-dimensional realities, in a kind of phantasmagorical vessel; dislocated out of Time and History and re-located on the threshold of irreality where they merge into the spirits of gods, heroes, artists, composers: ‘standing upon the lip of darkness / in grand and ageless contemplation.’ The imaginative goal which Harris pursues in his poetry is the spiritual release of the village destitutes from their condition of entrapment. He addresses his lines to the universalism of their humanity:

Not even the burden of their labour
nor the slow death that creepeth upon them
out of the empty hands
of an old and alien dispensation.
Nothing can hide their nobility.

It seemed to the poet, then, as it seemed to the novelist later, that there was a capacity in music to transport the human being out of a condition of entrapment into one of universalistic spiritual release. In an essay Harris, to demonstrate this notion, quotes a passage from Palace of the Peacock: ‘Caroll was whistling. A solemn and beautiful cry.’ And he goes on to explain the significance of music (which is suggested by his poetry):

The passage I have quoted is a peculiar example, I feel, of what I would call ‘density.’ My interest in it is to bring to your attention, however minimally at this stage, what I would call a phenomenon of space rooted nevertheless in a kind of ‘musical’ frame or analogy (bone/flute) that is enigmatic as it runs through the novel and seeks to ‘break and mend itself always’ into a capacity to sustain contrasts and roots of expedition into the future. Each horizon in the diagram is drawn out of the passage and brings into play a different mask or feature or vessel or procession that echoes not only Amerindian rituals but a token of European conquests, English and Romantic poets in league with Rimbaud's ‘Drunken Boat.’3

One finds in Harris's own philosophical articulations that the very conceptualizations of horizons, expeditions, masks, go back to some undeveloped symphonic opera which the poet was merely fiddling with, in poems calling for clashing cymbals and guitar music. One still finds Harris in 1974 struggling with this symphonic structure of a great poem/novel, such as one finds the Narrator at the end of Alejo Carpentier's The Lost Steps (Los Pasos Perdidos) struggling with in his lost ‘Threnody.’ Harris's villagers, caught in an entrapped historical condition of slavery (‘on the lip of darkness’) would, in the novels and two volumes of short stories, include the Amerindian as a very central persona:

… When I speak of ‘musical analogy’ here I am not thinking only of an accumulation of tonal effects in the obvious sense but of something much more primitive and akin to inbuilt cages or horizons or textures that cry for visualization from a deep native/universal standpoint for which I possess no philosophical or intellectual scale until a few years back when I did some research into Carib Yurokon vestiges of legend …4

One sees in the poetry that these concerns were already with the writer, even as a young man, as part of a mystical vision which he entertained of the Native. He sought the articulation of this vision in ‘high’ poetry of ‘English and Romantic poets in league with Rimbaud's “Drunken Boat”,’ but not finding the exact symbol he was looking for, Harris sought it in the vision of the myths and legends which inspired some of Europe's symphonies and operas. He also tends to seek the exalted visions of man in society of the Romantic philosophers; and it is noteworthy that, while Harris was to turn to the jungle music of the Caribs, Edgar Mittelholzer, his contemporary and fellow-countryman, was to remain under the influence of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Wagner, producing a more voluminous, but less remarkable body of writing than Harris. Moreover, because of his own poetic notions of Man, Harris would see an image of the Native with epic proportions, which Mittelholzer missed by a long shot:

They stand mute and execrated
like statues of priceless ebony
curbing a monstrous strength
curbing the violence of their limbs:
until the deep smile comes in patient grandeur
upon the darkness of their features.
This is the culmination of their strange beauty.

The epitome of Man is the villager!

A sublimation effect, therefore, is created in the poetry upon the image of the Native. And it is out of this poetry (epic in nature and highly original) that Harris would create Cristo in The Whole Armour5 in the role of the archetypal hero who goes into the wild and relentless Guyana jungle, to be stripped by a ‘Kanaima’ tiger, or revenge, and to be re-cast in the ghost of a dead man—to return to the village with a message of rebirth into the Spirit. The vision is already there in the poetry:

I think of Christ crucified
dying in agony, crying aloud to his God—
Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?
I think of the others,
the others who are also the sons of God,
contemptuous of their divinity,
living and dying today in the slums.

To clinch the role of the archetypal hero as an image of the Native, Harris produced ‘a belated traveller’:

A belated traveller comes upon the scene with a bundle on his back. He stops and looks about as if seeking a night's lodging. He is uncertain of his whereabouts. The street is very dark.
          He feels a sense of standing now on the brink of two worlds. A world of darkness without human companionship and a world glimmering with vague lights of living people.

Harris wrote both this ‘Setting Sun’ collection of ‘dramatic poems’ and the other Fetish poems under the pen-name ‘Kona Waruk,’ which Seymour pointed out was the Amerindian name for a river; Harris used it as a symbol for the Amerindian presence in America and the Amerindian contribution to its civilization. The rest of Seymour's information is contained in the Introduction to the Fetish volume, but to summarize it here is to add to a knowledge of Harris's poetic methodology and to gain valuable clues to his imagery in the novels. The imagery couples native aspects of the poet's ‘entrapped’ environment with opposite nuances of release: ‘Bosoms parch: / salty hungers indent journeys of electricity.’ And Harris himself describes the method in discussing the poem ‘Tropic of Heaven’:

We look then for a symbol that is both above and below … throughout the poem, I (the writer) tried to bring into sharp focus the disturbance created by opposed conditions. Such as freedom and imprisonment—the bursting of bonds—

networks turn to spasms.6

The persona of the Fetish poems drowns and goes into the underworld of the Native habitat: ‘in confirmation of ghostlike and impermanent visitor. …’ In the persona's (Native's) archetypal humanity Harris uses the poetry to construct spiritual mirrors of imprisonment and freedom ‘to bare Heaven's indifferent face.’ This use in the poetry of contrasting imagery to ‘focus the disturbance created by opposing conditions’ becomes the major source of characterization when Harris writes the novels—as orchestrations of his inchoate symphony. The Native archetypal quester is to be seen in the ‘belated traveller,’ in Russel Fenwick (The Secret Ladder), in Stevenson (Heartland), in Victor (Ascent to Omai). In fact the title poem of the Fetish volume is included in Ascent to Omai at the point in the novel when the questing Victor is blinded by a flash of light and his memory becomes fluid, recapturing an illusion of grandeur which completes his individuation. Reality has become irreality, the father has become the son, the destitute pork-knocker has become the released victor over his own abandonment and detritus. The character is ‘released’ in the disturbance created by imploding opposites together. About the title Fetish for the collection, Seymour gives broad hints in the Introduction of what were the Harrisian notions of self-perception which led to the imploding of opposites:

The title ‘Fetish’ is important as the poet believes that modern literature suffers from certain false beliefs, that many people today possess the psychology of magic-worshippers. This artificial system of attitudes and conventions is one which the poet believes should be broken.

In the poems, as later in the novels, Harris is searching for the authentic consciousness of the Native persona. In an essay of about the same date as the Fetish poems Harris wrote: ‘This great problem of opposite tendencies, the man of the museum and the real man, has for us a striking meaning …’7 Specifically, what Harris was thinking of (which was to become a search for an indigenous sensibility through his characters in the novels) was the underworld of the pre-Columbian civilization, its images and archetypes, on which Caribbean Man treads in his post-slavery entrapped condition. The poet, therefore, identified his search for the authentic sensibility with the Orpheus of his poem ‘Orpheus’: ‘whose failure to live / is the obscure power of life …’ The face of this Caribbean Orpheus is impassive:

is frozen
is washed like eternal pavements
where the sun endures anguish
and the substantial human shadow gasps …
his footsteps are void and echo-less
save in blooms and pain
they echo the assaults of mechanical tragedy …

He is an anti-hero, both an Orpheus and a Lazarus.8

In the final poem of the Fetish collection, Harris asserts a notion of generic collectivity to typify Caribbean Man: ‘The roots of the tree are sunk in / the immense river of blood …’ In this notion of collectivity Harris hopes to blend the pre-Columbian origins of the society with its immigrant components and to find the common humanity that lies in the discontinuous spaces of history which marry the Native to his environment as Man:

To follow it to its real conclusion [is] to begin from the beginning to go back as far as possible in the history of the Americas. Immigration from Asia produced the American Indian.9

Harris's poetic expression of this image is:

the immense river of blood has not deserted
tideless ways and converges to flower actual birth
or death in rock.

In the essay to explicate the Fetish poems he says:

Man's survival is a continual tension and release of energy that approaches self-destruction, but is aware of self-discovery … It is a cosmic frailty and is our dim participation in creation, all we know at present.10

In Eternity to Season, he takes up the theme of the generic tree of Caribbean man, and the first poem begins:

The working muses nourish Hector
hero of time: like small roots that move
greener leaves to fathom the earth.
This is the controversial tree of time
beneath whose warring branches
the sparks of history fall. So eternity to season, it is converted into
an exotic roof of love, the barbaric conflict of man.(11)

In this volume there seem to be two distinct stages of development of the Native/Archetypal theme. The first set of poems is grouped around the Homeric theme of the Trojan War, the second, in the latter half of the volume, around the Guyana villagers in the Canje. The villagers bear the names of the classical heroes (Achilles, Teiresias, Ulysses) almost as if Harris is saying that the Classical Age is being resurrected in the villagers; the village is the Underworld of classical history:

                                                                                          … earth simply cannot be
a cosmic and arbitrary discovery! what of its changing roots
and purposive vitality? External and internal
forces are separate illusions that move
beyond the glitter and the gloom with a knife to cut inner
                                                                                                    and outer times from each other
as they weave and interweave in the tapestry of life.(12)

Prefiguring the character Donne who interweaves the world of irreality with the world of reality in Palace of the Peacock, Harris calls up the cosmological correspondences of the universe of John Donne's ‘Hymn to God My God in My Sickness.’ Thus, referring again to the Asian immigration which produced the Amerindian, Harris uses the notion that sunken straits and lost passages had once linked the earth in a continuous chain of the human presence: ‘The tremendous voyage between two worlds / is contained in every hollow shell, in every name that echoes …’13 In Palace of the Peacock, therefore, Harris was to re-locate the Sixteenth voyage of New World discovery (which Donne had signified in his doctrine of Correspondences as a spiritual voyage into a higher realm of the spirit) in the Guyana hinterland, as a voyage into the Amerindian spirit. Donne, the voyager becomes spiritualized by the very alchemy of the quest and at each stage in the river, each successive death, he is (like the rest of the crew) drawn deeper and deeper into the womb of the fleeing folk travelling beside the river with the existential crew, who are suffering from a Kierkegaardian Sickness Unto Death. Taking the theme of the novel out of the transcendental poetry of Donnean correspondences, Harris attempts many ambitious things in the novel. First, he tries to create a voyage of death out of the material world into life in the spiritual world.

The spiritual world is but a shadow of the sixteenth-century Christian cosmogony interweaved within the tapestry of Amerindian ‘Otherworld’ mythic images. Hence one sees a significance in light and shadows, rooms and spheres, womb and twins, mother and son, water and earth, animal and ghost, persona and spirit, which is not entirely new but paralleled by Latin American writers in the ‘nahua’ tradition, because it reveals how Wilson Harris, a surveyor of the Guyana jungle, turned mystic. Palace of the Peacock ties down the European spiritual vision of the cosmos to the Amerindian vision of the cosmos; if the imagery is successful in terms of archetypes then the novel is successful, but if one merely slides over the indigenous content of the imagery and symbols one misses much of the novel.

Harris came to Palace through the poem ‘Behring Straits’ in which he found the lost continuity between the Old World and the New World to be a ‘labyrinth,’ ‘leading to many conclusions,’ and these conclusions became phantasmagorical presences of lost travellers in a kind of limbo between the two worlds. This ‘labyrinth’ becomes a world of imaginative space occupied by fused images of the two worlds, where the personae represent existent possibilities of reconnected stages in linear-disconnected history. Guyana became, for Harris, this Centre-of-the-world place of loss and rediscovery, of memory and non-memory, of identity and non-identity. He was later to refer to the shifting foreshore of the Guyana coastline as a ‘variable frontier’ representing this world of metempsychosis of the imagination. In his attempt to fill its discontinuous spaces with spiritualized personae Harris would create idioms peculiarly his own, such as ‘vision of consciousness,’ ‘sanctification of the void,’ ‘architecture of consciousness.’ What is especially important is that Harris's personal knowledge of the Guyana mainland, as a surveyor, became a kind of immersion into the ancient pre-Columbian spirit for Harris the writer. He has often referred to his spiritualization, and, in The Secret Ladder, one might read Russell Fenwick's struggle between his freedom to use technology and his responsibility to the survival of the ‘lost’ community to be Harris the surveyor's personal experience interpreted by the vision of Harris the poet.

But to return briefly to the classical connection, it would seem that Harris used the Homeric myth because of its capacity to accommodate a linear progression in the world of reality immersed into an Underworld of shadow and dislocations as part of the continuity. This interweaving of the real world and the otherworld of the Classics is, for Harris, a representation of what he himself can do with the discontinuous spaces of Caribbean history; and in the poem ‘Agammemnon’ he wrote:

the home of man wherever it be, the startling recovery of time
through the murky feud that deforms constancy.
So life darkens under branches of home
into murder and death
covering friend and foe alike.
But the truce of god still endures
when lightnings flash and point to the wounds of the world
in one instant of perception for all.(14)

Thus Agammemnon, Ulysses, Teiresias, who interweave the world of existent possibility with the world of imaginative possibility, become, first, in Harris's poetry a Native prototype on the Guyana and New World frontier, and, later, the main characters of the novels: Donne, Cristo, Stevenson, Russell Fenwick, Oudin, The Narrator (of The Eye of the Scarecrow), ‘He’ (of The Waiting Room), Roy Solman, Victor/Adam. There can be no short-circuiting of a critical understanding of Harris's characters, his motifs, his themes, his imagery and symbols, even his narrative, without reference to his poetic vision. Like Heracles the slave, whose name is the title of a poem in Eternity to Season, the characters of the novels are a composite of ‘the image / of security, the strength and perfection / shaped by dark blood and toiling humanity.’ Like Donne, Teiresias ‘bind[s] the free to the unfree: / the master to the slave: the owner to the ownerless,’15 and one can almost hear in these lines the description which Oudin gives of himself in The Far Journey: a landless, harbourless, jack-servant of all, but slave of none. Oudin is Harris's prototype of the New Caribbean Man, a traveller between two worlds.

Yet the individuation of the Harrisian persona is not complete since Harris has often referred to, and spoken publicly of, the rejection of the Native by himself. Harris, the novelist, would put the blame for this on the ‘loss of numbers through numbers,’16 the great generic loss of Caribbean Man through his enslavement and the resulting psychological disruptions to his sensibility:

… but here in this dark village
his banquet is a wraith, his love dark too
and gloomy in a menial soul far beneath him
in culture and rank that feeds on strength which is real
obscures lineage:
since in the bitterness of each task, how close is the slave
                                                                      to his heaven?(17)

Harris feels that strength in the persona can be gained by use of what he thinks is Caribbean Man's greatest resource, the ability to accommodate himself to ‘the weakness of space.’ He refers in [History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas: Mittelholzer Memorial Lectures] to the Arawak ‘Zemi,’ or space-gods, who could take the imagination of the indigenous folk outside of self-pity and fuse it into the environment, thereby relieving them of their neuroses and fear of death and decimation, and identifying them with their native environment. In the poetry Harris developed the notion by what he called ‘a relationship between what is faint and strong’:

                                                                                          … This is no race
between the living and the dead, the wind and the dust. Only a
between what is faint and strong,
the link between flesh and blood, father and son, victor and
Who comes with this message is free.(18)

This ‘relationship’ involves the overcoming of the ‘gorgon's head’ of self-restraint and negation, imposed upon the self through the authority of institutions and establishments. The theme was to be developed in the novel The Secret Ladder in which the character Jordan represents this self-restrictive authority. In overcoming Jordan's commonsensical realism Russel Fenwick will have ‘linked’ the water to the land, the body to the intellect, the mind to the spirit, and overcome the ‘inquisition’ of history, and become, like Donne, constellated. This is a major symbol in Wilson Harris, and its first appearance in his work is to be found in Eternity to Season in the poem ‘The Glorious Children of the Gods’:

Where are the glorious children of the Gods? Death may disfigure them:
some gorgon's head perhaps.(19)

Later, in the short story ‘Kanaima,’ Harris orchestrates this symbol in terms of the bush-baby legends of the Amerindians (legends of psychological disorientation) to show that the Amerindian had suffered the same psychological dislocations as the African, East Indian, Chinese, and European in the Caribbean, and that the careful student of culture, anthropology, and history must go beyond the patterns of perception established by nineteenth-century historians, in order to understand the bonds and affinities by which the various levels of the society hold together.

Interestingly, the gorgon's head came into Harris's novels through another novel which he co-authored in its early manuscript, Jan Carew's Black Midas. In it there is the image of a tree across the river, streaming lianas, which becomes fused with the Amerindian legends of a water-goddess, the ‘weironi’ who draws men down to the bed of the river, turning them into stones. I have no doubt that this is the point at which the indigenous pre-Columbian legends began to assume their authority in Harris's mind, and it must be noted that the poems I am discussing were being written at the same time as the Black Midas draft manuscript. Harris was to take up the notion that the Caribbean person's individuation can be made possible by a synthesis of all the historical factors which flow into his personality like a river. Thus the river becomes the Harrisian symbol of the fluid medium of self-perception which breaks out of the ‘prison of history’ (see Memorial Lectures). In the poetry it appears thus: ‘Freedom is an architecture of movement / down the river of ocean.’20 Again one sees the notion of the ‘architecture’ as a unique and powerful Harrisian symbol, when Harris applies it to the consciousness, and it becomes the artistic framework of the enigmatic but haunting final section of Palace of the Peacock

The overcoming of the ‘gorgon's head,’ which leads the Harris characters ‘to many conclusions,’ is often an enigmatic process in his novels and accounts for certain inexplicables in them. It explains, for instance, Van Brock's confusion of identity (The Secret Ladder), Mariella's outcast condition (Palace of the Peacock,) Cristo's persecution (The Whole Armour), Oudin's flight (The Far Journey of Oudin), Maria's flight (Heartland), the Persona's confusion of memory and sensation and imagery (The Eye of the Scarecrow), the psychoses of Susan (The Waiting Room), the quest of Victor (Ascent to Omai): all are part of Caribbean Man's hypothetical struggle with the psychology of self-negation.

If it seems that Wilson Harris is more than just an analyst, but a prophet of self-reconstruction in his characters, it can be accounted for by the epic scope of the perception that, as poet, he entertained of the persona which he felt to be akin to his own identity:


Time is the living certainty
where meet the old and the new, the past and the future,
the absent and the present. What is past and what is surely to be.(21)

One is now looking at the second section of Eternity to Season, the section which examines the capacity of the Native in terms of the archetypal persona. Here Harris recreates the hero like a drunken prophet. The setting is a village in Guyana linked both to the ocean and to the wilderness by a swingbridge (created by the Dutch to ship their produce from the plantations to Europe). The Native is a drunken prophet, a clown wakened out of a century of sleep, a carnival figure, a limbo spectacle, a possessed initiate who bears the mark of Anansi, the trickster. The personæ have gathered in the early morning light around the mother, who gathers the night's fish out of the drunken boat of the anti-heroes. In their confusion they parody their identities, but the parody is ironic; they are the self-fulfilling prophets who will become the characters in Harris's novels:


… He is his own past and present and future. No word exists
from death's lips
save that life can bear new fatherhood and time is an eternal father
alive and in some desperate need, surrounded by the enemy, time
to you and me that waste and fury reign and desolate the hearth
of life.(22)

The personae of the poem ask themselves many rhetorical questions, such as: ‘Who is the eternal master / and who wears the tyrant's head?’ The poet himself answers the questions, which are raised out of the ‘labyrinth’ of their spiritual demise: ‘… a premonition of incredible activity still to come, when the tide truly turns and brings the drowned fisherman home again to settle his account.’23

Each line of the ‘Canje’ poem is an act of memory and a prophecy, and into the mainstream of the process Harris introduces the woman, the mother, the disinherited, the perversely conquered creature of prostitution and incest who inhabits his novels with a tenacious presence of strength, binding crew and ship, victor and victim:

And in the desert of culture
the wind or earthquake comes and tumbles
the patience of history, the tribe or woman who is forgotten
but who remembers her own bitter love like a far distant sail
in the west.(24)

Almost as if to tie the historical and spiritual demise of the New World Caribbean community of man to the violation of the Mother-figure,25 the poet Harris makes an imaginatively gymnastic leap from the Donnean Christian cosmogony to the pre-Columbian archetypal myth of the Fall, and ties down the two myths in the archetype of the Redeeming Hero who overcomes the loss through the violation. In the poem ‘The Spirit of the Fall’ in Eternity to Season, the lines pick up the theme on the indigenous plane, making use of the legend of Kaieture in which the Amerindian chief, Makonaima, sacrifices himself to the River to repudiate the violation and loss of sanctity of the Mother:

At the end of the trail the first deception happens, the hero
comes to the precipice, goes over and goes down …
Jump from above to below! heaven to earth, life
to death, innocence to guilt is the fine grain
of Spirit.(26)

There is much of the brooding, introspective Wilson Harris in his characters' search for the Mother, the victim of the conqueror's lust, the daughter of incestuous relationships which produce the enigmatic Son. And the son broods for the Mother—the whore.

But it is at this point in his poetry that Harris would have left the classical references of the dichotomous quest (Orpheus for Euridice, Ulysses for Penelope, Agammemnon for Helen, Teiresias for the Mother) in favour of the indigenous symbols. He retreats into the pre-Columbian sensibility which provides him with his main link to the reunification of the Native persona's psychology; henceforth his departure from poetry will lead him into a novelistic quest in which his autobiographical memories of surveys done on the Canje and the Tumatumari Falls, his visit to Kaieture, his own sense of detritus and disorientation in the city of Georgetown in the midst of political strife, and much later, his fascination with the architecture and landscape of Scotland (in Black Marsden27). All of these experiences are filled with the imagery and myths of the Native landscape.

Thus, Harris closes his poetic career with a vision of a golden age of renascence for Caribbean Man on his own Native ground and in his own indigenous self-perceptions:

At the end of the jetty between suburban Kitty and port Georgetown
where the mountains are a cloud
and the flats are sometimes drowned
stands history like a sluice of plantations
a ghost of rain over the wide waters and the sun. The Atlantic
hazy and imperfect, reaches the coast,
each little wave peeps at the town. Fishing boats
lie on their side, empty shells high and discarded. This debris
of the coast is eloquent witness that wherever someone comes
value orders and reflects a procession of built-up acts
of self-surrender to every alien tide.(28)

In ‘Form and Realism in the West Indian Artist,’ Harris wrote exactly what he meant to be read into his writing:

The diminution of man is not entirely accomplished and a relationship between man and the paradoxes of his world becomes evident as a relationship which can have momentous consequences.

The West Indian artist therefore has a central theme or symbol, and that symbol is man, the human person, as opposed to the European artist whose symbol is masses and materials. In order to develop his theme the West Indian must concern himself with several levels of his world.29

Wilson Harris's ‘Sun Poems’ comprise a mere footnote to his earlier poetry. In the ‘Sun’ poems in Kyk-over-al, Harris is pre-eminently aware of the stanzaic and artistic format of the verse in his attempt to tie the Donnean cosmogony to the Native and indigenous images of persona. His verses are constructed in the shape of crosses and trees, though the forms of the verse do not enhance their poetic or philosophic value. There is no Christian fervour in the poetry, nor is there any striking image of the Native and indigenous, except perhaps in the first of the fourteen poems:

Crucifiction: is the dance with the sun
                                        the dance with the sun dancing still
                                        the dancing clown.

Yet probably these poems help to inform the reader why Harris left poetry for fiction; his poetic statements were already made as far as they could have been made in poetry in Fetish and Eternity to Season.

Up to the present, Harris's poetry has been ignored perhaps because the lines are complex and involuted and do not yield themselves easily to interpretation, for Harris himself was trying to write exalted poetry. Yet I believe that many of Harris's hermetic images remain sealed until one tries to open them up with the help of the poetry he composed before he turned to the novel.


  1. Faber, 1960.

  2. New Beacon Pblns., 1967.

  3. Wilson Harris, ‘The Enigma of Values,’ New Letters (U. of Kansas), XL, 1 (1973) pp. 141–9.

  4. ibid.

  5. Faber, 1964.

  6. Wilson Harris, ‘Form and Realism in the West Indian Artist,’ Kyk-over-al, V, 15 (1952); reprinted in Tradition, the Writer and Society, p. 15.

  7. ibid., p. 16.

  8. Which explains the title of the next poem in the volume: ‘Voices only (from the muse of Lazarus).’

  9. Tradition, the Writer and Society, p. 16.

  10. ibid., p. 20.

  11. Eternity to Season, p. 7.

  12. ibid., p. 11.

  13. ibid., p. 9.

  14. ibid., p. 20.

  15. ibid., p. 24.

  16. Wilson Harris, History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas: Mittelholzer Memorial Lectures, Ministry of Information & Culture, Georgetown, Guyana, 1970.

  17. Eternity to Season, p. 25.

  18. ibid., p. 26.

  19. ibid., p. 27.

  20. ibid.

  21. ibid., p. 32.

  22. ibid., p. 37.

  23. ibid., p. 39.

  24. ibid., p. 41.

  25. See Harris's review of G. R. Coulthard's translation of Felipe Guaman's ‘Poma de Ayala, New Chronicle and Good Government’ (Caribbean Quarterly, XV, 2 & 3, 1969), in which Harris refers to the violated mother as ‘the womb of man.’

  26. Eternity to Season, p. 42.

  27. Faber, 1972.

  28. Eternity to Season, p. 43.

  29. Tradition, the Writer and Society, p. 14.

Editor's Note: While this article was in proof (Jan. 1979) New Beacon Pblns, London, issued a new edn. of Eternity to Season.

Nathaniel Mackey (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: Mackey, Nathaniel. “Limbo, Dislocation, Phantom Limb: Wilson Harris and the Caribbean Occasion.” Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts 22, no. 1 (1980): 57–76.

[In the following essay, Mackey explores the sense of geographical “place” in Harris's representations of the Caribbean.]

… in a context such as the Caribbean and the Americas … the life of situation and person has an inarticulacy one must genuinely suffer with and experience if one is to acquire the capacity for a new relationship and understanding.

Wilson Harris

She succeeded in getting rid of the scaffolding of the song, to make way for a furious and fiery duende, companion of sandladen winds, that made those who were listening tear their clothes rhythmically, like Caribbean Negroes clustered before the image of St. Barbara.

Federico García Lorca


To go back to Lorca's “Theory and Function of the Duende” perhaps offers a usable route into what Wilson Harris is up to. Lorca, in his now famous essay, suggests that “the duende is a power and not a behaviour, … a struggle and not a concept” and that “every step that a man … takes toward the tower of his perfection is at the cost of the struggle he maintains with a duende.” He goes on to offer the example of Pastora Pavón, La Niña de los Peines, an Andalusian flamenco singer. One night while singing in a tavern in Cádiz, La Niña, disturbed by the audience's indifference to her technical brilliance, is forced to abandon virtuosity, to sing, as Lorca puts it, “without voice”:

La Niña de los Peines had to tear her voice, because she knew that she was being listened to by an élite not asking for forms but for the marrow of forms, for music exalted into purest essence. She had to impoverish her skills and aids; that is, she had to drive away her muse and remain alone so that the duende might come and join in a hand-to-hand fight. And how she sang! Now she was in earnest, her voice was a jet of blood, admirable because of its sincerity, and it opened like a ten-fingered hand in the nailed but tempestuous feet of a Christ by Juan de Juni.1

The duende is both an omen and a goad. It insists upon the insufficiency, the essential silence of mere technical eloquence, stretching the singer's voice to the breaking-point. This pursuit of a meta-voice, of an acknowledged and thus more authentic “silence” beyond where conventional elocution leaves off, this impoverishment or tearing of the voice, corresponds to what Harris, quoting the Barbadian poet Edward Brathwaite, refers to as “tunelessness,” the essential condition of the Caribbean's “orchestra of deprivation.” Some such numinous embrace as that of La Niña by the muse of dispossession, by the realization of one's having been heretofore silenced by presumptions of mastery, standards or canons of control, is what is repeatedly invoked throughout Harris' work: “The creative human consolation—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.”2 To embark upon this “inward dialogue” is to abandon one's conventional tongue, and this abandonment provides the occasion for, in Lorca's words, “the constant baptism of newly created things,” or what Harris calls “the Well of Silence” (ES, 95).

The term duende, as the inclusion of Lorca's essay in Donald Allen's and Warren Tallman's The Poetics of the New American Poetry indicates, has made a place for itself in the vocabularies of many of the United States' more explorative poets. The relevance of the idea of duende to these poets' Adamic intentions becomes pretty obvious in light of Lorca's assertion that “the appearance of the duende always presupposes a radical change of all forms based on old structures,” that “it gives a sensation of freshness wholly unknown, having the quality of a newly created rose. …” The term can thus serve to bring to bear upon Harris' work the notion of place as a persistent muse among American writers (by “American” I refer to both North and South America, not merely the United States), more specifically the notion of the Americas as a New World, at odds with traditional structures, conventions and forms. In the Americas more than anywhere else, that is, the occasion of place has provided the pretext for a poetics. This has been true primarily of those writers espousing or in search of an open poetics, the American condition being celebrated as one of marginality and unsettledness. Wilderness, whether that of the frontier West in the United States and Canada or that of the tropical bush in Central and South America, has served as a symbol of and inspiration for yet to be discovered poetic practices, for a break with established procedures and forms. What is meant by place in American poetics is most often the quality of having not yet been wholly domesticated or mapped. (Lorca: “To help us seek the duende there is neither map nor discipline.”) Robert Kelly, for example, has written: “What sustains us / is the empty landscape / the land we have not touched, / the primal temple.”3

Wilson Harris, who worked for several years as a government surveyor in the heartland bush of his native Guyana, has very much concerned himself with what I'm calling the Caribbean occasion, the impact of place, of a typically American “yet-to-be-inhabited-ness,” upon consciousness and the arts in the Caribbean. In his essay “The Question of Form and Realism in the West Indian Artist” he stresses the openness or emptiness of the Caribbean landscape, a bareness he views as conducive to “an original conception of values”:

What is the position that the West Indian artist occupies? He lives in a comparatively bare world—mountains, jungles, rivers—where the monumental architecture of the old world is the exception rather than the rule … the very bareness of the West Indian world reveals the necessity to examine closely the starting point of human societies. The diminution of man is not entirely accomplished and a relationship between man and the paradoxes of his world becomes evident as a relationship which can still have momentous consequences.

(TWS, 13–14)

Harris' approach is explorative, prospective, even hopeful—“the diminution of man is not entirely accomplished”—and invests in the Caribbean's scarcity of what he sees are dubious attainments after all, the inhibiting structures which characterize a more settled, more conventional world. The bareness of an environment which is unencumbered by such structures, of “the land we have not touched,” is embraced as though it were a blessing, the birthing ground for “the revelation of original and authentic rhythms.” The hinterland or bush for this reason plays a prominent part in virtually all of Harris' novels, confronting his protagonists with enabling perils whereby their diminished, conventional consciousnesses are enlarged:

Fenwick found himself at a nightmare loss for words. He was often repelled and fascinated by his camp attendant's calculating and yet spontaneous industry. It evoked in him a sensation of curious and abnormal helplessness as if a great distance stood between himself now and the faithful amenities of every past and truly harmonious domestic world, whatever loyal contrivances he had managed to establish. The jungle remained an eternal primitive condition. Everything and everyone could become threatening, even strangely privileged and demanding.

(SL, 26)

The disorientation given rise to by the terrain can become the occasion for an immaterial transcendence or transformation as well. Fenwick, Harris writes, “liked to think of all the rivers of Guiana as 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” (SL, 19–20).

Place, as the foregoing indicates, corresponds to or is made to be suggestive of states of mind in Harris' works. The “monumental architecture” occupying the old world landscape accordingly makes that landscape representative of rigid, ingrained habits of thought. C. L. R. James has commented on Harris' work in the context of the deconstruction of these habits of thought undertaken by three European philosophers in particular, Heidegger, Jaspers and Sartre, arguing that “Harris is to be seen as a writer of the post war period who is in the full philosophical tradition”:

… Heidegger, in my opinion, and Jaspers and Sartre, are aware that the European preoccupation or acceptance of the material basis of life, a fixed assumption—that has broken down. That is the significance of Heidegger, Jaspers and Sartre. … Harris is saying that in the Americas, in Central America and in the West Indies, that has never been. There has never been that fixed assumption of things, that belief in something that is many centuries old and solid. That is why he is saying what I interpret as the dasein, the “being there.” I find it profoundly important and viable especially for people who live in these territories.4

To the extent that Harris, like these philosophers, sees any “fixed assumption of things” (and correspondingly, the “monumental architecture” by which it's symbolized) as an impediment to an open, authentic consciousness, architectural and technological bareness or “underdevelopment” makes for a positive symbol in Harris' conception of Caribbean prospects—that of an opportune deprivation or dispossession. In this context, then, such terms as deprivation and dispossession are subject to quotation marks. The possibility of fulfillment in the midst of presumed and even manifest deprivation is a recurrent insistence throughout Harris' works. It is his commitment to and exploration of this possibility which set him apart from the dominant view of the Caribbean situation (or predicament, as that dominant view is more likely to call it).

The problematics of the Caribbean situation have to do with a history of colonialist and, more recently, neo-colonialist exploitation. This history has resulted in the continuation of patterns of dependency established with the inception of the plantation system three centuries ago. Despite so-called independence the nations of the Caribbean find themselves dependent upon outside powers—the United States and the former colony-holding nations of Europe—for military “protection” as well as such essentials as food and manufactured goods. Their physical resources and economic institutions have been developed for and dominated by outsiders, and they suffer the adverse trade balances in which their export economies result. Dependency likewise manifests itself in the cultural realm, the area with which Harris is concerned. As David Lowenthal in West Indian Societies writes: “If Europe dominates West Indian political and economic life, in terms of culture the West Indies are also Old World appendages. No other ex-colonies are so convinced they are British or French or cling more keenly to their European heritage.”5 It has thus become customary to speak of the West Indies almost wholly in terms of cultural deprivation or cultural parasitism. In an essay called “The Unresolved Constitution” Harris cites two authors in particular who exemplify this tendency, Jamaican novelist and sociologist Orlando Patterson and Trinidadian novelist V. S. Naipaul, in whose writings a litany of words like “historylessness,” “rootlessness” and “chaos” has to do with the presumed lack of cultural traditions native to the Caribbean.

Harris argues that such writers reveal their own dependencies or parasitisms by clinging to so simplistic an interpretation of Caribbean culture, that the standards by which they judge the West Indies void are hand-me-downs from Europe. Naipaul, who has argued that “a literature can grow only out of a strong framework of social convention” and that the Caribbean lacks any such indigenous framework, simply imitates, Harris suggests, the conventional English novel. Harris accuses him of mimicry and of insulating himself, by way of borrowed conventions, against the very condition—conventionlessness—about which he writes:

The contemporary English Novel … possesses a coherent design based on a social evolution and contract or bridge of generations. That this is something native to a particular social landscape—that in fact it has never claimed to subsume world literature—far less the imagination of man—is something that arouses the deepest uneasiness in the educated colonial from the British West Indies who wants—above everything else—to escape from humiliating reality into a style akin to first-class citizenship at the heart of Empire. … [I]t seems to me that if a writer employs a “coherency” based on the English social model to describe a native world which he himself goes to great lengths to declare invalid and non-historic or parasitic and mimic he gains a commanding strength (which is nevertheless illusion) over the material he describes that may entertain or divert people who have, in fact, no real experience or perception of what he is talking about.6

Such an approach lacks duende. Which is to say that it forsakes the anguished ground in which a tradition true to the Caribbean must root itself, what Harris means by a descent into voicelessness, a “confrontation in depth”:

The constitution of history as it affects the Caribbean and the Guianas is one which the creative writer is profoundly qualified to explore, I believe, provided he can suffer again through his work the ancestral torment of finding his tongue seized again as if he had become a dumb thing without voice or language: yet for this very reason knowing himself uniquely immersed and equipped to embrace the muse through an imaginative re-discovery of the past. As I write this I am struck by the archetypal correspondence with Rimbaud—the disordering (dérèglement) of the senses. It is easy enough to pronounce on “historylessness,” oppression etc.—once one stands above it within an order of insulation—once one does not creatively descend into the disorder of it, suffer creatively the disorder of it: an escape route which may well prove the best of two worlds and permit a skillful short-circuiting of real crisis or confrontation in depth. The art in short not of alienation as it is popularly called but of insulation.

Throughout remarks like these Harris is adamant that the opportunities afforded by the Caribbean “void” or “incoherency”—opportunities for experimentation and possible innovation, for “the constant baptism of newly created things”—not be overlooked. The very predicament so often lamented or railed against he wants to embrace as the occasion for an Adamic “centreing process, an internal representation of alien, however forbidding, particulars rather than an external representation of familiar hopelessness, stalemate and feud.” He calls for the creative rejection of what he insists are oversimplifications, of the pressures on the writer “to make national and political and social simplifications of experience” (TWS, 30). Such an oversimplification he takes Patterson's “historylessness” to be:

… what he is doing is to underscore “history” and point up to a “historylessness” within centuries of oppression. The danger of this—if danger it can be called—is that if inflated into a monolithic trumpet to wage war against philistinism and bankruptcy, it may react with poetic justice by bolstering up, through glaring oversimplification, the very philistinism it sets out to destroy—if in fact it does set out to destroy anything at all. … [T]he clown of history is not without history but in fact is pregnant with a native constitution—the “lost” ages of men.

Thus: “If I were asked to give in four words … the direction in which I would like the West Indian novel to move, my reply would be towards an act of memory” (Harris' italics).


In the essay “History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas”7 Harris quotes Merleau-Ponty's assertion that the freedom of the artist or the philosopher “consists in appropriating a de facto situation by endowing it with a figurative meaning beyond its real one.” One of the essay's recurrent contentions is that historians of the Caribbean, native and foreign alike, have failed to exercise any such freedom, “that a cleavage exists … between the historical convention in the Caribbean and Guianas and the arts of the imagination.” The essay is thus an attempt to point to a possible closing of that gap, towards an art (as well as act) of memory: “I believe the possibility exists for us to become involved in perspectives of renascense which can bring into play a figurative meaning beyond an apparently real world or prison of history. … I believe a philosophy of history may well lie buried in the arts of the imagination.” The essay embodies, methodologically, the point Harris wishes to make: that a native tradition of imaginative response to cultural dislocation or “historylessness” does in fact exist and that this tradition provides models and cues for the Caribbean artist. Harris' act of memory consists of reassessing the Caribbean past in such a way as to find precedent for “a profound art of compensation,” a “view of art as an extraordinary drama of consciousness whose figurative meaning lies beyond its de facto historical climate.” Certain features of the past, that is, are endowed as figures by a self-reflexive muse.

Harris brings his art of memory to bear upon specific aspects of the Caribbean's Amerindian and African cultural inheritances, vestiges of and variations upon certain ritual practices, historical anecdotes, symbols and myths. The figurativity of his approach is readily seen in his evocation of what he calls “a limbo gateway between Africa and the Caribbean.” His highly resonant use of the term limbo has first of all to do with the West Indian dance in which the dancer maneuvers his or her way underneath a bar which is gradually lowered. The outspread, spiderlike sprawl of the limbo dancer's limbs relates the dance to the Africa-derived Anancy tales. Having to do with the doings of Anancy, a cunning trickster-god in the form of a spider, these tales are widely known in the Caribbean, very much a part of the region's folklore. Harris also points out that limbo is said to have been born in the holds of the slave ships during the Middle Passage, brought into being by their extreme lack of space. This connection with the Middle Passage and thus with the idea of a liminal or in-between state enchances the play on limbo-as-purgatory Harris wants to be “born” in mind. Another pun, this one on the word limb which the term limbo contains, brings in the idea of the phantom limb related to amputation or, in this context, geographical and cultural (yet another pun) dislocation. Finally, the phantom limb comes to be associated with the “rowdy” bands Harris recalls from his youth in Georgetown, a form of guerrilla theatre in which “some of the performers danced on high stilts like elongated limbs while others performed spreadeagled on the ground.” Thus a network of resonances and poetic associations yokes a cultivation of the unusually low (limbo) with a compensatory extension into unaccustomed height (“rowdy” stilts).

What Harris is attempting with this figurative act of memory—his own spectral or phantom re-membering of a dismembered past—is to free the Caribbean of a reductionist historiography which imprisons it in its deprivations. He is attempting to recall and bring to light a tradition of folkish cunning, of imaginative, Anancy-like response to those deprivations:

It has taken us a couple of generations to begin—just begin—to perceive, in this phenomenon, an activation of subconscious and sleeping resources in the phantom limb of dis-membered slave and god. An activation which possesses a nucleus of great promise—of far-reaching new poetic synthesis.

For limbo (one cannot emphasize this too much) is not the total recall of an African past since that African past in terms of tribal sovereignty or sovereignties was modified or traumatically eclipsed with the Middle Passage and within generations of change that followed. Limbo was rather the renascence of a new corpus of sensibility that could translate and accommodate African and other legacies within a new architecture of cultures. For example the theme of the phantom limb—the re-assembly of dismembered man or god—possesses archetypal resonances that embrace Egyptian Osiris, the resurrected Christ and the many-armed deity of India.

And further on:

… the limbo dance becomes the human gateway which dislocates (and therefore begins to free itself from) a uniform chain of miles across the Atlantic. This dislocation or interior space serves therefore as a corrective to a uniform cloak or documentary stasis of imperialism. … Once we perceive this inner corrective to historical documentary and protest literature which sees the West Indies as utterly deprived, or gutted by exploitation, we begin to participate the genuine possibilities of original change in a people severely disadvantaged (it is true) at a certain point in time.

The limbo dance therefore implies, I believe, a profound art of compensation which seeks to re-play a dismemberment of tribes (note again the high stilted legs of some of the performers and the spider-anancy masks of others running close to the ground) and to invoke at the same time a curious psychic re-assembly of the parts of the dead god or gods. And that re-assembly which issued from a state of cramp to articulate a new growth—and to point to the necessity for a new kind of drama, novel and poem—is a creative phenomenon of the first importance in the imagination of a people violated by economic fates. (Harris' italics)

Harris goes on to relate limbo to vodun, the Haitian possession rites derived from West Africa. The point he stresses, quoting Pierre Verger and Harold Courlander on African vodun and Haitian vodun respectively, is that the latter lacks the former's orthodoxy, the insularity tribal custom and authority serve to maintain: “African vodun is a school of ancestors: it is very conservative. Something of this conservative focus remains very strongly in Haitian vodun but there is an absorption of new elements which breaks the tribal monolith of the past and re-assembles an intertribal or cross-cultural community of families.” The insularity of the various African peoples brought to the New World—Ibo, Arada, Nago, Congo, etc.—was broken or dislocated by the Middle Passage. Harris views this breakage or amputation as fortunate, an opportune disinheritance or partial eclipse of tribal memory which called creative forces and imaginative freedoms into play. He relates the word vodun to the word void, to the emptiness or “historylessness” left by the collapse of tribal coherency and sanction, the dissolution of ancestral rule. Limbo and vodun are characterized by a phantom extension into the novel “inarticulacy” brought about by the Middle Passage, into imaginative reassemblings, resourceful acts of bricolage. Throughout all of this Harris is making a case for the imagination: “… the apparent void of history which haunts the black man may never be compensated until an act of imagination opens gateways between civilizations, between technological and spiritual apprehensions, between racial possessions and dispossessions. … Limbo and vodun are variables of an underworld imagination—variables of phantom limb and void and a nucleus of stratagems in which limb is a legitimate pun on limbo, void on vodun.

Charles Olson, lecturing at Black Mountain College during the fifties in a course he called “The Special View of History,” said of Yeats' A Vision by way of qualifying his own “special view”:

(The messengers who came to Yeats through his wife's voice as a medium, and through whose instructions he wrote the Vision—a spiritualistic Spenglerism of time—Yeats was honest enough to quote in these words, “We come to bring you images for your verse.”) It may turn out in the end that this dogmatic system of mine is no more.8

Harris' “philosophy of history … in the arts of the imagination,” it should be clear by now, is likewise intimate with and committed to his own poetic work. Merleau-Ponty, in the passage Harris quotes, points out that “the act of the artist or philosopher is free, but not motiveless.” The motive underlying Harris' figurative reconstruction of the Caribbean heritage is his need to find his own work prefigured in what he brings back from the past, to bring back images for—and of—his own poetic novels. For example, the phantom limb/Osirian phallus conceit of which he makes use in one of the passages quoted above can also be found in the novel Ascent to Omai (AO, 103–104). Other such overlaps between Harris' critical or theoretical writings and his novels abound. Harris' treatment of Odysseus' flight from Circe in the essay “The Writer and Society” (TWS, 52–54) is brought to mind in The Waiting Room by the recurrence of words and images pertaining to ships and sailing and to deafness and/or blindness. An example:

The uncertainty of shape or direction—ancient vessel, model of creation, ark or covenant—… acted like a hidden spur as well as naked pole, a dynamic and static concretion to which one surrendered oneself as to a “black” pilot, weathered masthead, phantom of flesh within but beyond the sound of flesh, echo of self-regard, song of the sirens. … One embraced and was held in turn by this “deaf” mast to which one was truly bound and secured within the elements of distraction. …

(WR, 47)

(TWS, 52–54). That Harris' critical and theoretical writings are of a piece with his novels should come as no particular surprise though, especially in this day when poetry and fiction so often comment upon themselves. Nor should it come as a surprise that his exploration of the Amerindian legacy, like his exegesis of limbo and vodun, brings to light exactly such images and gestures as his own novels emulate and feed upon.

Harris looks in particular at the bush baby legends of the ancient Caribs, the cannibalistic aborigines after whom the region is named. Having conquered the Arawaks, the original inhabitants of the area, the Caribs themselves eventually fell victim to another wave of conquest, this one by the Spanish. The bush babies were wraiths, apparitions which rose out of the pots in which they cooked their Arawak victims. Harris argues that these wraiths “carried … overtones of eclipse at the hands of Spain …, overtones also of a new dawn”:

We know from investigations into the psychology of the victim (conducted, for example, in post-Hiroshima Japan) that it is he, the victim, very often, whose consciousness is infused with omens of the future (apocalyptic omens are often of this kind in a victor/victim syndrome). It is as though the guilt of the victor stands on the threshold of a creative breakthrough in the darkening consciousness of the victim as prelude to the birthpangs of a new cosmos. It is not inconsistent, therefore, that we may discern, in the rubble of the Carib past, signs akin to a new ominous but renascent consciousness at the time of the Spanish conquest.

The bush babies are the annunciation of and symbol for what he terms “the native or host consciousness,” the dawning of a new consciousness in which conquest gives way to accommodation as the dominant model for human behavior and motivation:

The overtones and undertones of host native—or a native consciousness—could have occupied little more than a latent threshold in the Carib/Latin world of the 16th century. For that was an age whose over-riding character—as in the centuries to follow—remained rooted in notions of conquest. What I would suggest, however, is that this over-riding character of conquest (the Caribs themselves were conquerors of the ancient West Indies before Spain, England, France, Holland came on the scene) was in a state of subconscious erosion. And I also feel that this latent threshold—this inner erosion of a certain dominant mould or character of conquest—this inner secret of the native (inner divergence of the native from a consolidated given pattern which is the tyranny of history)—is fundamental to the originality of the Guianas and the Caribbean and to a renascence of sensibility.

Thus the bush baby syndrome further articulates the need for an imaginative “inner time,” an “inner divergence” from the apparent hegemony of realist/materialist history in the Caribbean: “… the Carib or Carnival ‘immortal child’ was an inner omen which diverged from the immediate realism of the day. Such a divergence exposed latencies or sleeping resources. Those resources of inner divergence need to be converted in our age, I feel, into an original threshold in a West Indian architecture of consciousness.”

In another essay dealing with Amerindian inheritance, “The Phenomenal Legacy,” Harris is more explicit as to the connection between his own writing and the omens or imperatives he's been able to elicit from the Caribbean past. He insists that he is not formulating or seeking to impose upon anyone a pre-conceived theory or an aesthetic blueprint but that his insights and assertions come from the actual act of writing: “My approaches … are not intellectual, but rather part of a hard and continuous wrestling within the medium of my own work, a process more akin to something active and unpredictable rather than planned and theoretical.”9 He points out as well that his involvement with the Amerindian past is an involvement “not with these aborigines as such, but with the aboriginal fact of conquest,” and then goes on to insist on the need for an imaginative participation in the brokenness of the Amerindian legacy, for a vicarious or phantom penetration of an analogous broken state, “the necessity to enter a transformative area of assumptions beneath one's safe crust of bias”:

For the subject which is being approached exists in a void and therefore one needs to participate in it, I believe, with an art of fiction, an imaginative fluidity that is as close as one can possibly come to existing now, with immediacy, in a form that has already been broken in the past. It is here that one starts to concede, and enter upon those alternative realities (“phenomenal legacy”) which may lead to a new scale or illumination of the meaning of “community.” Such a willingness to participate imaginatively borders upon a confession of weakness, and this, therefore, paradoxically, supplies the creative wisdom or potential to draw upon strange reserves and perspectives one would otherwise overlook or reject, detached as we feel we are within an absolute tower of strength (false tower of strength).

This “confession of weakness,” I'd like to suggest, is the artistic counterpart of the “erosion of conquest” of which Harris finds portents in the bush baby myths. What he is doing is insisting that the Caribbean artist descend into the consciousness of the conqueror-turned-conquered, into that shock-induced awareness of ephemerality (of what he calls “the mortality of all assumptions”) and the consequent need for a new dawn which overcame the Caribs. The Caribbean artist should cultivate a similar apprehension of the provisionality of all structures and institutions, of the fact that no set of conventions, no “coherency” constitutes a final conquest of “the perennial, essentially human or natural fact of obscure, sometimes catastrophic change, life-in-death, death-in-life.” One must vigilantly question, that is, the conquistador—the “safe crust of bias” or “false tower of strength”—within oneself.

Harris' two books of retellings of Amerindian myths, The Sleepers of Roraima and The Age of the Rainmakers, can be taken to be exemplary of the approach he argues for. That he is not encouraging acts of protest on behalf of the vanquished is made evident by such passages as: “Hunter and hunted. Could they be one and the same in the end?” (SR, 24), or “the conquistador pass had changed hands frequently” (AR, 26). The concern is instead with unity or unification, with “gateway conceptions of community” (AR, 61) and “a conception of the native as a curious host of consciousness” (AR, 38). The divergence of Harris' treatment of the aborigine from the more familiar romantic and/or protest treatments is indicated by his highly idiosyncratic, highly specialized use of the term native. In the tale of the bush baby Yurokon, for example, he writes: “He began to age into the ancient Child of Legend. It was a story he had been told from the beginning—that he was the last Carib and the first native. …” (SR, 68). The term native appears to signify a certain racelessness or tribelessness, what Harris refers to in the “History, Fable and Myth” essay as “the inner universality of Caribbean man.” Significantly, Yurokon is said to have appeared “when the revolution of conquest was over” (SR, 68), underneath “the broken sky of conquest” (SR, 72). That he represents the one-and-the-same-ness of hunter and hunted and thus the resolution of all such dichotomies as divide consciousness is indicated by the reference to him as “victor-in-victim”:

As the Caribs withdrew across the ridge of the land and began to descend into a continent of shadow, each knot of ash linked them to the enemy. And Yurokon was the scarred urchin of dreams, victor-in-victim; over the centuries he remained unageing (ageless) as a legend, a curious symptom or holocaust of memory, whose burnt-out stations were equally embryonic as a cradle, fugue of man, unchained chain of fires.

(SR, 75)

Fugue of man. What Harris is doing, it perhaps bears repeating, is attempting to keep clear of any special pleading on behalf of this or that group, to insist upon a contrapuntal harmony which unites all things. In yet another essay, “The Native Phenomenon,”10 he refers to “a universal host capacity to sustain contrasts,” and to “a play of contrasts.” In the prefatory note to “The Age of Kaie” he writes: “I have attempted in this story to interpret the rainmaking fabric of the Macusis [a people native to regions of Guyana and Brazil] as a conception of opposites which has largely been obliterated by histories of conquest—Carib, Spanish, French, English, etc.” (AR, 15). The story itself speaks of the Macusis' “need to reconcile the twin elements” (AR, 24) and of a “betrothal of opposites” (AR, 20). This fugue or betrothal is the “unwritten symphony” (SR, 63) Yurokon plays on his flute, the “music at the beginning of the end of an age” (SR, 76)—an age of conquest.


… on alto, he assembles long lines that roll and plunge as they accumulate to some personal critical mass, then he rams that mass with furious force into the barrier that begins with what the horn will not do. He implies beyond the horn. He tries to sneak through the limitations at some swift, flat angle. He tries to stroke through them, head-on. He makes you hurt with knowing how he felt inside that range, with listening to the faith he had in his bones and ligaments and muscles and breath.

Mack Thomas, on Eric Dolphy

The heart-searching rhythms born of North American Negro music have been described as ‘raucous.’

Wilson Harris

A correspondence, as Harris himself points out,11 exists between Yurokon and Carroll, the Black boatman in Harris' first novel Palace of the Peacock. Once the crew has undergone its “second death” and entered the Palace of the Peacock, a city of gold somewhat like El Dorado located in the hinterlands of Guyana and Brazil, Carroll (who has played the guitar from time to time throughout the expedition), becomes the mouthpiece for a music symbolizing universal fulfillment or the “indestructible harmony at the heart of the cosmos.” It hardly seems possible that this Palace of the Peacock isn't another way of symbolizing the same thing Harris says the cauda pavonis or colors of the peacock stand for in his Jungian/alchemical reading of the bush baby myth:

… we can look back at the Carib “immortal child” of dreams with the aid of alchemical symbolism for which, as you may know, there are three stages, namely, first of all the nigredo or blackness—sometimes called the massa confusa or unknown territory (not to be equated superficially with the colour black but with an undiscovered realm), secondly, the albedo or whiteness (again not to be equated superficially with the colour white since it means an inner perspective or illumination, the dawn of a new consciousness), thirdly, cauda pavonis or the colours of fulfillment we can never totally realise.

The immortal wraith which the Caribs glimpsed as they crouched over their campfires and consumed a morsel of the enemy carried therefore overtones of eclipse at the hands of Spain (akin to nigredo), overtones also of a new dawn (akin to albedo) and of a host native (akin to cauda pavonis or rainbow peacock).

The kinship between Yurokon and Carroll (Harris calls them cousins) has to do with the fact that they both represent “the native or host consciousness.” It is important to keep in mind, however, the fact that the music each becomes a vehicle for is itself a symbol—a “metaphoric symphony” Harris calls the music of Yurokon's flute (my emphasis)—a way of speaking of a truth which cannot be embodied. This symbolic music is Harris' writing's way of speaking of an extrapolation beyond itself, just as in Jungian psychology the Self is said to project images of a wholeness it struggles in vain to embody in thought. (Jung writes of “the indescribable and indeterminable nature of this wholeness,” explaining that “wholeness consists partly of the conscious man and partly of the unconscious man. But we cannot define the latter or indicate his boundaries.”12 Harris likewise defines cauda pavonis, the Palace of the Peacock, as something “we can never totally realise.”)

Such recourse to metaphor betrays an estrangement or distance which the metaphor—the word is derived from a verb meaning “to carry over”—seeks to overcome. The use of metaphor is then in some senses a “confession of weakness,” the recognition of a chasm one wishes to be carried across. In the very text of Palace of the Peacock Harris alludes to this chasm or distance. The narrator notes an incongruity between the sound Carroll's lips appear to be making, a whistle, and the sound he in fact hears, one like that of an organ. The chasm or incongruity is that which separates heaven from earth: “Carroll was whistling. A solemn and beautiful cry—unlike a whistle I reflected—deeper and mature. Nevertheless his lips were framed to whistle and I could only explain the difference by assuming the sound from his lips was changed when it struck the window and issued into the world” (PP, 147). This music, a metaphor for cosmic unity somewhat like “the harmony of the spheres,” through its metaphoricity “confesses” an estrangement from the wholeness it intimates. The narrator finds the music, just as Jung does wholeness, indescribable and indeterminable, and his attempt to evoke it is marked by a tentative, rather hesitant movement which whenever it asserts immediately qualifies itself.

It was an organ cry almost and yet quite different I reflected again. It seemed to break and mend itself always—tremulous, forlorn, distant, triumphant, the echo of sound so pure and outlined in space it broke again into a mass of music. It was the cry of the peacock and yet I reflected far different. I stared at the whistling lips and wondered if the change was in me or in them. I had never witnessed and heard such sad and such glorious music.

(PP, 147)

The music itself breaks. It is as if Harris wanted to show the metaphor cracking under the weight—the “indestructable harmony at the heart of the cosmos”—it's being made to carry. But the music also mends itself; in the same way, I'd venture to say, that a phantom limb “mends” an amputation. The music/metaphor, that is, can be said to be the phantom limb with which the novel reaches towards a wholeness to which it can only refer, the cosmic fulfillment we at once intuit and are “cut off” from.

The spectre of this wholeness in relation to which all expression or manifestation has to be deemed incomplete haunts the world of Harris' works. A similar incongruity between an act of producing sound and the sound produced occurs in The Secret Ladder when Fenwick first encounters Poseidon, the African maroon living in the swamps being surveyed by Fenwick's crew:

Poseidon addressed Fenwick at last. His mouth moved and made frames which did not correspond to the words he actually uttered. It was like the tragic lips of an actor, moving but soundless as a picture, galvanized into comical association with a foreign dubbing and tongue which uttered a mechanical version and translation out of accord with the visible features of original expression.

(SL, 24)

(The un-Africanness of the name Poseidon, despite its possible allusion to Leo Frobenius' African researches, heightens the sense of schism or incongruousness.) What Harris is attempting to suggest, it seems to me, is a certain sundering or “a play of contrasts” at the heart of things. Insofar as Poseidon represents Adamic seed or primogenitorship (“the Grand Old Man of our history” and “the black king of history” are what he's called in the text), the passage constitutes either a refusal to invest the ancestral past, as is commonly done, with connotations of Edenic wholeness—in which case Poseidon represents not a Golden Age of unity á lá Adam Qadmon but “a form that has already been broken in the past”—or a reminder of Fenwick's and our own estrangement from, and thus the unintelligibility to us of whatever unity Poseidon does represent. These two readings essentially amount to the same thing—an insistence upon the elusiveness or irretrievability of wholeness, upon différance. This elusiveness is further suggested by the fact that in three novels, Palace of the Peacock,The Whole Armour and Tumatumari, the Amerindians (again, possibly suggestive of some ancestral or aboriginal wholeness) are in flight: “… shattered tribe. A terrible broken family. On the run! They were running, running, I tell you. Full retreat. Full flight. God knows who started it. You would think the blasted tiger of hell was chasing them” (WA, 116, Harris' italics).

Harris' acknowledgement of and struggle with this elusiveness make for the rapport I've been attempting to suggest between his writings and Lorca's idea of the duende. Just as Lorca extols the brokenness of La Niña's voice, Harris accords brokenness or breakage, symptomatic as well as symbolic of incompleteness, the status of cosmogonic truth: “Yurokon held the twine in his hands as if with a snap, a single fierce pull, he would break it now at last. Break the land. Break the sea. Break the savannah. Break the forest. Break the twig. Break the bough” (SR, 69). Harris' prose has become more broken itself. Here, for example, is a passage from one of the most recent novels, Companions of the Day and Night:

It was time to take stock of others as hollow bodies and shelters into which one fell. Hollow newspaper into which one fell, newsworthy sacrifice, wrinkled skin. FIRING SQUAD OF RAIN. Headline. Heartline. STOCKMARKET SHELTER, CITY RAINS. Deadline. CANVAS REQUIRED, SACRIFICE REQUIRED.

For centuries it seemed to him now he had been ascending, sliding, falling into rain inch by inch, into shelters of paint, shelters of stone. Sacrificed paint. Sacrificed stone. Lament for the dying sun. This was the altar of his malaise, Idiot shelter, Idiot fascination, fall into the sculptures of the greatest men (upon whom? from whom? times rained).

(CDN, 58)

Compare this with the passages I quoted above from the earlier novels Palace of the Peacock and The Secret Ladder and you immediately note an increased reliance on sentence fragments and one- or two-word bursts. The more recent prose is more agitated, more impatient it seems. Its urgency furthers a certain rowdiness or raucousness—something Dereck Walcott has referred to as “audacious”—which typified Harris' work from the very beginning. A sometimes strident, obsessional energy brings Harris' writing, even in its earlier, less choppy phase—in which phase just the opposite tendency, the unusual length and the complexity of the sentences convey this energy—close, to my hearing at least, to that raspy, “unmusical” quality a flamenco singer or a horn player like Dolphy or Anthony Braxton often gets. (Carroll's music, interestingly, is likened to the cry of a peacock, a sound not particularly known for its euphonious qualities.) This stridency or raspiness is both an acknowledgement of and a doing battle with limitation (“the barrier that begins with what the horn will not do”), a “confession of weakness” and a phantom reach beyond incompleteness.


“So on this ground, / write … / on this ground / on this broken ground,” writes Edward Brathwaite.13 These lines have to do with the Caribbean predicament—fragmentation, dislocation, etc. They also have to do with writing, and if one calls to mind the Derridean idea that the very possibility of writing signifies and is indebted to a cosmogonic severance known as différance, one is prepared to understand “this broken ground” in the way that Harris does. The Caribbean's brokenness participates in a larger-than-local problematic, the universal human predicament Harris calls “cosmic frailty” (TWS, 20), an ontological estrangement or weakness the Caribbean writer, having no historically sustained “coherency” as insulation or defense, is in a position to confess. The problem of large-scale emigration from the Caribbean, for example, the fact that every year an enormous number of West Indians leave home in search of economic, educational, cultural and other opportunities abroad, is not simply a manifestation of the dependency situation peculiar to the Caribbean but is endowed by Harris, himself an emigrant now living in London, with suggestions of a universal condition of exile. In Idiot Nameless' “Manifesto of the Unborn State of Exile” in The Eye of the Scarecrow then:

The education of freedom … begins with a confession of the need to lose the base concretion men seek to impose when they talk of one's “native” land (or another's) as if it were fixed and anchored in place. In this age and time, one's native land (and the other's) is always crumbling: crumbling within a capacity of vision which rediscovers the process to be not foul and destructive but actually the constructive secret of all creation wherever one happens to be.

(ES, 101–103, Harris' italics)

This is Harris' version of George Lamming's phrase “the pleasures of exile.” It makes what by now in this essay should be a familiar insistence: that some such crumbling dis-closes “a community whose wholeness in reality cannot exist except by confessing its own insubstantial limits” (TWS, 49), that only through this confession or crumbling is anywhere, as William Carlos Williams insisted, everywhere.


  1. “Theory and Function of the Duende,The Poetics of the New American Poetry, eds. Donald Allen and Warren Tallman (New York: Grove Press, 1973), pp. 91–103.

  2. Tradition, the Writer and Society (London and Port of Spain: New Beacon Publications, 1967), p. 33. Subsequently referred to as TWS in the text of the essay. References to other Harris books will be abbreviated as follows: PP = Palace of the Peacock (London: Faber, 1960), WA = The Whole Armour (London: Faber, 1962), SL = The Secret Ladder (London: Faber, 1963), ES = The Eye of the Scarecrow (London: Faber, 1965), WR = The Waiting Room (London: Faber, 1967), SR = The Sleepers of Roraima (London: Faber, 1970), AO = Ascent to Omai (London: Faber, 1970), AR = The Age of the Rainmakers (London: Faber, 1971) and CDN = Companions of the Day and Night (London: Faber, 1975).

  3. Robert Kelly, Flesh Dream Book (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1971), p. 132.

  4. Wilson Harris: A Philosophical Approach (St. Augustine, Trinidad: Univ. of the West Indies, 1965), p. 15.

  5. West Indian Societies (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972), p. 5.

  6. “The Unresolved Constitution,” Caribbean Quarterly, 14, 1/2 (1968), 43–47. Subsequent quotations in section 1 of the essay are taken from this source unless otherwise noted.

  7. Caribbean Quarterly, 16 (1970), 1–32. Subsequent quotations in section 2 of the essay are taken from this source unless otherwise noted.

  8. The Special View of History (Berkeley: Oyez, 1970), pp. 35–36.

  9. “The Phenomenal Legacy,” The Literary Half-Yearly, 11 (1970), 1–6. Subsequent quotations in section 2 of the essay are taken from this source unless otherwise noted.

  10. Common Wealth (Papers delivered at the Conference of Commonwealth Literature, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark, April 26–30, 1971), ed. Anna Rutherford (Aarhus: Akademisk Boghandel, no date), pp. 144–50.

  11. “The Native Phenomenon,” Common Wealth, p. 149.

  12. Psychology and Alchemy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), p. 18.

  13. The Arrivants (London: Oxford Univ. Press), pp. 265–66.

Rhonda Cobham (essay date spring 1983)

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SOURCE: Cobham, Rhonda. “The Texts of Wilson Harris's Eternity to Season.World Literature Written in English 22, no. 1 (spring 1983): 27–38.

[In the following essay, Cobham examines the evolution of Eternity to Season from its initial publication in 1954 through its final edition in 1978, marking technical changes, reorganization of lines and phrases, omissions, and additions.]

The first publication by Wilson Harris to appear under the title Eternity to Season was a small pamphlet containing three poems: “Troy,” “Behring Straits” and “Amazon.” The pamphlet appeared in 1952 and was privately published by Harris himself.1 Between 1952 and 1954 a number of new poems using related images were published in Kyk-over-al.2 Eventually this new material was combined with the original three poems in a larger collection, also called Eternity to Season, which was brought out in Guyana as part of the Miniature Poets Series in 1954. In 1978, a new revised version of the collection was issued in London by New Beacon Books. In addition to these published texts a further “manuscript” of the poems exists. It consists of a copy of the 1954 text with Harris' tentative jottings in the margins and between the lines, indicating planned changes to the text. Most of these handwritten revisions were incorporated into the 1978 New Beacon edition.

The 1954 and 1978 versions of Eternity to Season can be considered important markers in the evolution of a single literary text whose creation spans Harris' entire career as a writer. Both texts are reproduced in the New Beacon publication so that it is possible to compare them directly.3 The individual poems are arranged in a similar order in each version of the text, although their content has been altered radically in many instances. Following the first three poems, which originally made up the entire 1952 collection, Harris has placed a group of poems called collectively “The Fabulous Well” that use the image of a village well in the Guyanese interior as a recurrent motif. A series of five poems follows, which in the 1954 text carried the title “Cumberland” and the subtitle “The Archetypal Characters of the Well.” Although the subtitle has been dropped in the 1978 text, the poems remain connected with specific archetypal characters or situations taken from Greek mythology that Harris relates to a Guyanese slave village. “Prometheus” is placed under a separate subheading as a coda to the “Cumberland” sequence. In the 1954 text, “Prometheus” was followed by a verse drama sequence called “Canje,” but this short story has been excluded from the 1978 text. Both the 1954 and 1978 editions of the poems close with a cycle entitled “The Spirit of Place.” Each of the poems within the cycle describes a characteristic feature of the Guyanese landscape. Although only one of the poems contains a direct reference to Greek mythology, it is clear that this final sequence is meant to bring together the various ideas about the Guyanese landscape and society explored through Greek mythology in the earlier sections of the collection. One consequence of this intimate interconnection between poems and sections within the collection is that changes to individual poems tend to affect the meanings of other poems by altering the context in which they appear.

Changes to the poems may be considered under four headings.

Technical changes. These take the form of deletions or alterations of single words or short phrases. They usually have the effect of tightening up the structure of specific poems. Similes become metaphors and superfluous articles and conjunctions are removed. An example of this kind of change occurs in the opening poem of the collection, “Troy,” which begins in the 1954 text:

The working muses nourish Hector
hero of time: like small roots that move
greener leaves to fathom the earth.

(p. 54, emphasis added)

In the 1978 text, like and that are deleted, changing a simile which suggests a comparison between Hector's development and the growth of a tree to two independent statements, each of which modifies and is illuminated by the other. Almost all the changes in the three opening poems follow this pattern and the effect produced is a tautening of structure that leaves the central ideas of the poems free of distracting detail. Occasionally a vivid new echo of the poem's subject is produced in the movement of the lines as a result of such changes. In “Agammemnon” for example (part of the “Fabulous Well” sequence), the dramatic effect of the hurricane imagery used to evoke the split-second decision for life or death in Agamemnon's final battle is considerably heightened by the deletion of short words that retard the erratic violent movement of the poem:

the beacon of homecoming: the dark night is illuminated
in a split second. Thunder rolls
like a breaker of magnitude
in space …

(p. 63)

beacon of homecoming: dark night
split second. Thunder rolls
a breaker of magnitude
in space. …

(p. 24)

Such changes indicate a surer mastery of technique that allows Harris to manipulate the effects he wishes to produce in his poems more precisely. In addition, certain minor technical changes often carry crucial shifts in meaning, but these are discussed in greater detail later in this study.

Reorganization of lines or phrases. Here, as above, the sense of an image or idea remains basically intact, but its form, and ultimately its meaning, shifts slightly. An example of this kind or reorganization occurs in “Tiresias” in the “Cumberland” section, where the poet's perspective on slavery and the past takes on positive rather than negative association as a result of alterations like the following:

the chains rattle
like forgotten limbs broken to bright dust
rising to cloud every perspective in the shafts of mind.

(p. 66)

Chains of fever in bone and bark
rising to wing every hallucinated perspective.

(p. 31)

The new position of the word “rattle” strengthens the sensual quality of the image of chained slaves. However the substitution of the verb “wing” for the verb “cloud” creates a new series of associations which suggest a movement through hallucination to hope rather than a clouding of hope or movement towards despair.

Omissions of complete poems or sections. The most radical changes of this nature are the omission in the 1978 text of the verse drama “Canje,” the poem “Antaeus” (which together with “Prometheus” had been grouped under the title “The Beggar Is King”), and the poem “The Spirit of the Fall” in the “Spirit of Place” cycle. However, almost all of the poems in the collection have been drastically cut (from several pages to a few lines in some cases), and A. J. Seymour's introduction to the 1954 text is left out of the 1978 version.

Additions. Most of these occur in the “Cumberland” and “Spirit of Place” poems. Sometimes ideas already present in the text are extended, but occasionally quite new material is introduced. The poem “Laocoon” for example, in the “Spirit of Place” cycle, had concentrated in the 1954 version on the poet's response to the unfinished appearance of the area along the sea wall:

The land is bounded
by ineffectual palings that stand with shadow dwarfed everywhere.
Solid pillars wait in readiness for a new house
make darker or blacker impressions on the white ground.
The sounding sea hammers a half-mile off on the coast.

In the new version of the poem, the poet tries to evoke not only the landscape, which itself has changed to a jumble of urban settlements, but also the intensification of a mood of violence in Guyana. To do this he must not only alter specific images (“cannonades” instead of “hammers” to describe the pounding of the sea) but must introduce new passages relating to the changed reality of modern-day Guyana:

The land is bounded
by ineffectual palings.
The sounding sea cannonades half-a-mile off the coast …
And the continuity of savage drum
is sun's loud shadow on the television tree of the sky, continuity
of savage spoil
the closeness of a blossom reflected in a bloated corpse, roadside drain's
snapshot in a glossy magazine.

(p. 45)

To explain the significance of all these changes, it is necessary to return to one of the components of the 1954 text which was excluded from the revised 1978 edition: A. J. Seymour's introduction. In it, Seymour had attempted to place Harris' poetry within a romantic tradition. For example, he says of Harris' method:

He takes simple physical sensations and personal types belonging to the world of Guiana today—it may be a grain of rice or the girl with torn dress and exposed flesh taking water from a well—and he links with them philosophical formulations which he connects with unusual and seemingly unrelated aspects of life.

(p. 53)

Seymour's comments read more like a paraphrase of Wordsworth's introduction to Lyrical Ballads than a true estimate of Harris' intention. He fails to communicate the extent to which, in Eternity to Season, image is symbol and not merely a descriptive agent that leads us into the poet's philosophical reverie. Seymour also describes the poet in terms of romantic subjectivity. He interprets the opening lines of “Troy” (already quoted above) as the poet's description of “his own brooding intellect,” rather than as a statement of thematic intention which points away from the poet's psychological state towards the text and the world beyond it. Such an interpretation goes against the grain of Harris' critical theory, which specifically rejects the ornamental, decorative use of imagery and a romantic subjectivity that fails to come to terms with what Harris has called “authentic experience.”

Seymour was not without his grounds, however, in arriving at his estimate of the 1954 text, as his ability to support his interpretation by reference to specific poems shows. A considerable portion of the 1954 text is merely decorative in its use of descriptive imagery and it is not surprising that early critics were often confused by a sense of conflicting intentions in the work as a whole.4 In the “Fabulous Well” sequence for example, where Harris begins to formulate some of his most seminal ideas about the relationship between inner vision and sensory apprehension, the poet allows himself in the 1954 text to be diverted into a picturesque description of the comings and goings at the well which involves an elaborate use of metaphorical conceit:

The hum of traffic
wells from time and space. The road streams
in the morning sun. Pigs and poultry, a boy sinks
with a bucket on his arm. A beautiful maid sails to the well
with pouting breasts, a little girl is brave with water-can.
And the famished heart floats
sky-high with bags of grain. …

(p. 60)

What in another context could have been a clever and refreshing series of word pictures becomes within the framework of Harris' intention superfluous ornament. Having focused his attention arbitrarily on the people at the well, the poet ends up having to create a literary idyll in which to place his “local colour.” The result is that the villagers and their plight become central to the poem instead of the symbol of the well as a source of life and death. Eventually the poem lapses into truisms about the villagers' social situation—“one must lose and one must gain”—which reinforce precisely that facile hierarchy of victim versus victor that Harris was trying to transcend in his vision of the New World. Harris is then put into the position of having to gainsay the trend of associations set up by his own images in subsequent passages in order to pull the poem back into line with his original intention. In the 1978 text Harris omits this entire section within the “Fabulous Well” sequence, and similar cuts occur elsewhere in the collection.

The omission of the “Canje” verse drama from the 1978 text would seem to be an attempt to rectify a related problem. Here too, the constraints of form and conventional symbolism as well as a simplistic wish to adhere to realistic detail limit the philosophical intention of the poet and involve him in fruitless counter-arguments against the train of associations set up by his own text. Seymour had described the “Canje” verse drama in his 1954 introduction as an attempt by the poet to transfer the courageous values of the Greek heroes to a local setting:

The Greek characters now stalk on the Guiana stage and play out their parts under the aegis of their immortal counterparts in history and literature.

(p. 53)

Seymour's observation is a fairly accurate summary of what seems to take place in the “Canje” verse drama. Harris has placed Ulysses and Tiresias as fisherman and woodman respectively in a boat on the Canje river in Guyana. The fisherman is returning from a narrow brush with death on the sea and, like his mythical counterpart, he encounters many people who fail to recognize him immediately. Harris goes to great lengths to invest his borrowed figures with the trappings of the Guyanese social reality. Ulysses is described in the stage directions as “a strong-looking black man with a heavy beard” and Tiresias as a man with a resigned look “from suffering under some complaint no doctor can cure.” In his opening speech Ulysses develops the paradox of eternity and season central to the collection in an evocative description of the tidal Canje river:

Dark water
flows slowly: impact of an interior flood meets the salt sea.
Dark water
rises and falls: tide braces and hauls eternity
in powerful measure, inflow and increase, outflow and decrease of the salt

(p. 72)

However, within successive speeches, the thematic focus on the ideas of time and change, eternity and oblivion, continually eludes the poet. Instead Harris becomes absorbed in maintaining the narrative development of his play in a way that reconciles the demands of the original Greek myth and the Guyanese reality. Transposed to the Guyanese reality, for example, Ulysses' true identity may only be divined by someone who is drunk. The fact of drunkenness also endows the characters in the play with the “poetic licence” to ruminate about eternity and season. This dramatic device sets the poet off on a train of reflection concerning drunkenness in West Indian society. At one stage, after Ulysses is recognized by a drunken World War I veteran who continuously relives his wartime experiences, the author makes Ulysses comment:

You have spilt so much of the blood of life! have you not the nerve
for a glass of rum?
But no
poor Achilles is done! Without liquor he's insensitive as a log,
one drink! and he's still a man, the poetry of life
returns like a charm! but too late. Too weak for the strong intoxicant!
Too much talk of god or war
to pinch him out of his senseless feud!
He cannot distinguish between his private gain and the public rule.
It is certainly not good enough!

(p. 78)

The prosy, moralizing tone of such speeches jars against the philosophical passages in the play where Harris attempts to combine myth and reality as symbols of time and eternity. Harris is unable to sustain his development of the local scenario and the result is an incongruous assortment of unequal images which reduce the play's function to that of an allegory, at once obvious and limiting. To the maturer writer approaching the 1954 text in retrospect it must have seemed evident that the entire “Canje” verse drama would have to be deleted.

Indeed it may be stated as a general observation that many of the changes in the 1978 text tend to produce a suppression of the narrative impulse in the poems. Perhaps this tendency may be accounted for if one bears in mind that when Eternity to Season was written in the 1950s Harris still considered poetry the medium best suited for communicating his ideas. His later success with prose provided him with the scope he needed to develop through narrative the explicit parallels between Homeric epic, Amerindian legend and Guyanese reality which he had tried to work out originally in his poems. When he came to revise Eternity to Season for the 1978 edition Harris may have realized that there was no longer any need to force the narrative connected with these various elements into uncongenial lyrical forms. Though many of the poems in the 1978 text retain the names of Homeric characters in the titles, the attempt to pair off specific mythic characters with specific Guyanese counterparts has been abandoned. Instead, images connected with the Homeric myth are allowed to interact freely with those taken from the Guyanese landscape and the association between the two is left for the reader to infer. In “Troy” for example, details about the background to Hector's involvement in the Trojan war are omitted, so that the poem is equally about Hector's quest for immortality and the cycle of birth-death-resurrection in the natural world. Seen from this perspective, the minor technical changes already noted in the poem's opening lines become part of the overall shift in emphasis within the poem as a whole. In “Prometheus,” a similar series of minor alterations have been used to give equal weight to the description of the river, the myth of Prometheus and the inner workings of the soul of man. In “Behring Straits,” even more of the narrative detail has been removed so that the only direct reference to the historic crossing between Asia and America by the Dutchman Behring occurs in the title of the poem, and the idea which the poet sees as important about the crossing, namely the connection of two supposedly disconnected hemispheres, is allowed to dominate the poem.

So far I have suggested that the changes to the text in the revised 1978 edition of Eternity to Season tend to remove ornamental imagery and to suppress the narrative impulse within the earlier 1954 text. A third and perhaps more important rationale behind the revisions, especially the additions and alterations, would seem to be that they update the poems in terms of the author's own philosophical development. We are given a clue to the nature of this development in the changes Harris makes to the epigraphs with which the collection opens. The 1954 collection opens with three quotations, taken from Homer, Goethe and Shelley respectively. Each quotation, develops the image of a loom or web, a symbol of the interconnection of aspects of reality as well as a clue to the poet's own method:

In the daytime I would weave the mighty web
and in the night unravel the same
At the whirring loom of time unawed
I work the living mantle of god
Nature's vast frame, the web of human things,
Birth and the grave, that are not as they were.

In the 1978 text the second line of the Shelley quotation is deleted and instead a quotation from Jacques Monod is added:

Every living being is also a fossil.(5)

The new epigraph poses the contradiction between life and death in a much more paradoxical form than the vague birth/grave juxtaposition of the line from Shelley. It also introduces into the collection the symbol of the fossil which Harris had elaborated in the essay Fossil and Psyche (1974). The new image is also integrated into the body of the collection. In the poem “The Taste of the Well” for example, the lines

So the procession of empty water-carriers
to and from the deep well of time
seeks the never-to-be-forgotten senses of earth

are changed to read:

So the procession of empty water carriers
to and from the deep well of time
seeks the living fossil senses of earth.

(pp. 62, 22)

The new formulation brings out the dual nature of the well as a source of life and renewal as well as a passage into the ancient “dead” past by means of a much more effective paradox than that evoked by the reference to a dimly remembered yet ever present past in the 1954 text.

In addition, whereas the quotation from Shelley is vague about the precise nature of the relationship between birth and the grave, in the quotation from Monod the opposition and equality of these states is enunciated with the authority of someone stating a natural law. Both the aphoristic quality of the statement and the emphasis on equality rather than complementarity are marked features of Harris' own style in the revised 1978 text of Eternity to Season. The change has important consequences for the “Fabulous Well” sequence, where formerly the poet had concentrated on the idea of “the consolation of strength,” i.e. that special gifts may be related to apparent handicaps. Thus the muses' inability to speak in “The Mute at the Well” is now presented as a positive attribute rather than a deprivation which produces a compensatory sharpening of the ability to hear. Similar changes occur in the poem “The Vision of the Well.” In both versions the poem opens with the lines:

once blind
now open to the beauty of life. …

The 1954 text then goes on to elaborate vivid visual images:

The raw material takes shape
and creation: pure sensation of vision
wells into light, a new yet intoxicating fullness
which comprehends the world. Earth blossoms into a planet
Green tenderness changes into a deep promise of seeing life.

And further on in the poem a woman was described whose “cheeks are the dark glow of blood.” In the 1978 text all these vivid visual images are deleted. As a result sensations of touch already present in the original are allowed to come to the fore, leaving the impression that the eyes that are now opened to the beauty of life are the “eyes” of touch rather than the eyes of vision. The shift of emphasis is reinforced by the addition of a new closing cadence:

Touched by vision
and fingertips of rain upon stone
flesh-and-blood is strange and new.

(pp. 61–62, 22)

A similar movement away from images of compensation and towards images of affirmation may be traced in Harris' novels. In his first published novels, which make up the Guyana cycle, the emphasis is on symbols of authority and oppression although the theme of the novels is the need to transcend the self-perpetuating stasis between victor and victim through a reassessment of the hidden strengths of the supposedly weak. In middle novels like The Waiting Room (1967), Harris begins to place more stress on the mutual interdependence between strong and weak. Central to this phase is the motif of Ulysses the captain tied to the mast of his boat so that he may listen to the song of the sirens, while his deaf crew who steer the ship ensure that he is able to repel the fatal attraction of the sirens' song. In more recent novels the idea that death or deprivation are in themselves positive states capable of generating achievement or glory becomes central. Cuffey's glorious though unwilling participation in Magellan's discovery of the Southwest Passage in Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness (1977) is an example of the way Harris has developed this theme, as is the elaboration of the idea of “backward resurrection” in The Tree of the Sun (1978).6

The 1954 text of Eternity to Season is dominated by passages which attempt to come to terms with Guyana's history of oppression and deprivation, either by associating the Guyanese reality with a more noble mythical past or by suggesting compensatory features in the Guyanese landscape or society which help to make up for the country's history of exploitation. Where the 1954 poet had seen his society in terms of bonds to be transcended, however, the 1978 poet intuits new sources of hope and strength. Thus, in the poem “Tiresias” in the “Cumberland” sequence, which is built around the image of a ruined slave village, the significance of many of the observations made about the village in the 1954 text is literally reversed in the 1978 text. The original opening lines of “Tiresias” for example read:

The subtle links of time
bind this dark village.

In the new text this becomes:

The subtle wings of time
unbind this dark village.

Further on in the same poem, where the relationship between master and slave is presented as mutually debilitating in the line

… They bind the free to the unfree:
the master to the slave: the owner to the ownerless

(“They” being the dusty passages of history), the 1978 text reads:

… They unbind master and slave,
owner, ownerless.

(pp. 65, 31)

In another poem in the “Cumberland” sequence, in which the archetypal mother figure Anticleia is used, the poet urges his society to turn away from a barren fascination with the past. In the 1954 text the poet has Anticleia say:

                                                                                                                        O fury of man!
how long can you tarry now, with a skeleton of time
that seems older than life itself …
                              The gulf between now and then must narrow
as between mother and son once more:
Across the lane still stands freedom:
is the smoky past of the parent world's
nurture and survival.

In the 1978 text the idea of slavery and freedom as static entities between which Caribbean man is caught is rejected in favour of a vision of time as an illusory quality apprehended differently from different perspectives, and incapable of exercising a specific influence on the future or the past. Consequently past and future may be continuously remoulded by the individual:

The gulf between illusion and freedom, now and then
is narrow
as between ghost-artefact of a mother and flesh of a son.
Across the lane nothing stands
save bartered lots
or loot of memory pregnant souls bring
to every endangered spark of a king
born out of revolutionary place and time.

(pp. 66, 34)

Often, the impression created by some of these changes is that the poet has made an about-face philosophically. Lines like “across the lane still stands freedom” and “across the lane nothing stands” seem on the surface to be in direct opposition until they are returned to their respective contexts. What seems to have taken place is that ideas which Harris previously had tried to express in terms which confused their significance with traditionally accepted estimates of the Caribbean predicament have now been reclothed in terms better suited to the author's intention. Thus, where in the 1954 text Harris tries to counteract the effects of a morbid and petrifying fascination with the past by pointing out the advantages to be gained in the future or the limited nature of the exploiter's triumph in the past, in the 1978 he seems to be saying “There is no such thing as a predetermined past in the first place, just as there is no such thing as a predetermined future!” Indeed Harris goes further and denies the reality of death as a separate or static entity. In “The Glorious Children of the Gods,” renamed “Home” in the 1978 text, all references to death as the antithesis of time are deleted. The shift in nuance which this produces in the poem may be appreciated if a passage like the one quoted below is read first as it stands (1954) and then without the sections emphasized by italics:

                                                            On the hard voyage
the certainty of home is the rediscovery that time
is the oar of life. To blunt death's ambition
or spear the rash demon who would shatter the globe, time
is direction in the hearts of men. To find a home
where the noble are just, and the beggar is king,
time is the harbour that men must build in each moment
that this village flows from death
to life: like opportune wind free of dust or friction

The lines which remain are taut and aphoristic, like the new epigraph to the poem from Monod. The passage which follows them takes on a new significance in the light of these alterations and can be seen as a full statement of the theme of both texts of Eternity to Season, now clarified and placed into a precise perspective by the deletion of ornamental imagery, the removal of narrative sequences ill-suited to the poem's lyrical form and a greater reliance on axiomatic statement:

                                                  On the hard voyage
the certainty of home is the re-discovery that time
is the oar of life. To find
a home where to be noble is just, to be beggar is king
time is the harbour that men must build in each moment.
For time is no fixed boat or inevitable doom
but is the motion of men and matter in space, subtly
flowing and binding into universal action, into construction,
into related texture and interaction, into function and formation,
mortality and immortality, all one substance
moving and making time. Making time
in the boat men steer and ride down the river of ocean
through still banks on the farthest shore where no time is.

(pp. 68, 35)


  1. Most bibliographies list the 1952 and 1954 texts as the same book, but according to Harris the earlier publication was a privately published pamphlet containing only three poems.

  2. For details, see Reinhard W. Sander, “An Index to Kyk-over-al: 1945–1961,” World Literature Written in English, 16, No. 2 (1977).

  3. See Eternity to Season (London: New Beacon, 1978). The 1954 text is placed at the end of this volume with all deletions and alterations indicated in italics. Unless otherwise stated, all quotations from the 1954 text in this study are cited from this appendix. Further references are incorporated in the text. (Where early and late versions are compared, the 1954 version appears first, followed by the 1978 version.—Ed.)

  4. See Michael Gilkes, Wilson Harris and the Caribbean Novel (London: Longman, 1975), pp. 9–10, for a discussion of the critical response to the obscurity in the 1954 text.

  5. The epigraphs to the 1954 text are not reprinted in the New Beacon appendix. They appear on page 1 of the Miniature Poets Series edition (Georgetown, Guyana: Argosy Press, 1954).

  6. For a discussion of The Tree of the Sun and Harris' theory of “backward resurrection,” see Hena Maes-Jelinek's article in this issue of WLWE.

Wilson Harris and Michael Fabre (interview date spring 1983)

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SOURCE: Harris, Wilson, and Michael Fabre. “Interview with Wilson Harris.” World Literature Written in English 22, no. 1 (spring 1983): 2–17.

[In the following interview, Harris discusses the setting, characters, and themes of The Secret Ladder, the evolution of his artistic vision, and his concept of the novel genre.]

[Fabre:] How would you introduce The Secret Ladder to the general reader? How should one begin to approach the novel?

[Harris:] It might be useful to start with saying something on the landscape of the Canje. There is a passage which tells you a little about it:

The Canje was one of the lowest rungs in the ladder of ascending purgatorial rivers, the blackest river one could imagine. Every tributary had buried its grassy head in a grave of wilderness, green as diabolic flame, with a high waving colour of fresh seeming youth belonging nevertheless to the darkest fluid of the river's age. No one lived upon, or cultivated, the Canje's swamps and savannahs. On higher land where the water still appeared to possess the actual banks and definition of a river, the inhabitants wrestled with themselves to make a living within their uncertain ground which was continuously threatened by an erosive design eating slowly across the river's catchment.1

The Canje relates to the coast of Guyana and as one goes into the country one finds the rivers rise gradually and move up above the tidal reaches so that you have that principle of ascending, of a ladder. In that territory there have been many expeditions, from pre-Columbian times to modern times, and these expeditions have suffered at the hands of the American Indians and also of the landscape, as if, in a sense, they were enduring a kind of initiation. Always there was the desire for El Dorado which ignited their greed and lust, but there was also a subtle shift from the City of Gold to the City of God, which was possessed with some kind of symphony—there was music as well as architecture—and the Canje provided the rungs in that ladder into secrets which were real preoccupations.

The “erosive design eating slowly into the river's catchments” is an important factor. All the watersheds are eroded, not only the main one which lies between the Canje River and the great Berbice River. Therefore every catchment tends to pull the water from all the others, and as the water drains very slowly, this builds up a great natural reservoir which feeds the Corentyne coastland. The river is mysterious; it gives the sensation of being eternally still, yet it is slowly moving; there is a tendency in a river like that for the grass to come across the river and block the path:

The grass growing on either hand came far out nearly to the middle, appearing submerged in a lake of greenest fathoms under a secretive pitch of mingled transparency and gloom.

(p. 153)

Now, Poseidon's ancestors were African slaves who had fled from the Barbice plantations into the wilderness. It was difficult to pursue them because of the nature of the landscape, the swamps and the flood, and they established themselves on a great island. So you have a picture there of the landscape Poseidon had been living in. He was rooted in this area and seemed to be the king of the land and the water—an important element which had protected him for a hundred years. Therefore, when Fenwick, half surveyor, half engineer, arrives at the head of his party to convert the natural reservoir into a man-made reservoir (more water will be impounded and the place made more secure), Poseidon considers the matter with dread. The water which protected him and his ancestors is now going to be used, in a sense, to uproot him. The bank of the river will be flooded and he will lose his settlement. Technology and irrigation may be good things, but for him they mean the death of his age. Furthermore, the water that had protected him until now will become a battering ram to drive him off the land. That explains his response to Fenwick and Bryant. On page 156, he looks at them half-blind through “the clotted memory of darkness” of his landscape. He sees them clearly but he does not see the boat: they are standing on the water. You realize that image more profoundly only if you realize what water means to Poseidon. The image is handled in that way to suggest that these men who had arrived were men of a profound significance. They were bringing news. They thought they were bringing good news but they were announcing the death of Poseidon's age. Fenwick, who had come to that area simply to do his job and without any idea of inflicting torment, suddenly finds himself facing something he had not dreamed he would have to reckon with: he understands that it is good and well to bring technology, as a human asset, to the interior which needs it, but if it is used to overwhelm people who have no appreciation of what technology signifies, then one is caught in a hideous dilemma. One is actually a tyrant and the whole structure of technology becomes authoritarian. And Fenwick is moved deeply when he realizes this. Furthermore, his crew is composed of people of different races—Chinese, people of African descent—among whom Bryant, who saw and worshipped Poseidon as a God, is brought by curious circumstances to kill Poseidon. He did not intend to. This is where a Greek myth is woven into the fabric of the novel: Perseus, you may remember, slew his grandfather by accident. Now, all this is perceived only glimmeringly, because the burden of knowledge at that stage is too great to bear in one piece. If you go into an area as an engineer you go with great hopes, and to be told that you are bringing about the destruction of an age becomes intolerable. This is the torment which has afflicted scientists who had to do with the atom and whose discoveries, geared towards peace, have resulted in the bomb; they dreamed of mathematics as an art and these mathematics became the threshold to nuclear destruction. Had they been told that, perhaps they would have been so paralysed, so devastated, that they would have done nothing at all. The reality of terror or the reality of ecstasy cannot be digested totally; it must be taken by pieces as it were. This is where the people who take drugs are deceived enormously: they think the drugs will take them to heaven, but there is no easy passage into heaven … Anyway, glimmeringly, Fenwick becomes aware of this burden and begins to take it upon himself in pieces, and this affects his judgement of his responsibility. It affects his relationship to Jordan, his camp-attendant, to whom he leaves all sorts of tasks which he does not want to perform himself (Jordan has to ration the men and he is so strict that he becomes a sort of Gorgon's head which Fenwick uses over the crew). It affects his relationship to Weng, who is an unscrupulous but very efficient foreman. Gradually Fenwick realizes that he can no longer endure to hide behind those servants. He is himself the servant of a much deeper and stranger design, which requires of him a profound dialogue with these people: he would have to suffer with them to understand their deep-seated predicament—that this very element which had sheltered them was now turning against them. It is in this way one finds a cross-cultural pattern in the novel because it is an area saturated with all kinds of myths; not only the myths of the ancient Amerindians but those of the Europeans, of the Africans who had come through the Atlantic, of the people from Asia. The judgement which Fenwick has to seek precariously and with difficulty is how to make these various cultures relate to each other without any culture seeking to dominate the others. This is complicated by technology: is he going to be the new conqueror, the new conquistador whose technology will be used by the group who possess it in order to flatten out those who don't? Everything has to do with the way we bring the potential asset of technology to bear upon the human element, so that those who benefit from it will come into participation with it and those who bring it will have some grasp of the human problem and of the fact that men do not live as automatons.

What about the opposite point of view of Poseidon? Does Fenwick really see him for what he stands for?

In approaching The Secret Ladder, one needs to look at two elements in order to get a sense of the shape of the novel. There are, of course, many ways of approaching it, mind you, but you can take, for instance, the encounter in which Fenwick and Bryant meet Poseidon:

At first Fenwick saw nothing. But as he peered closely into the barely perceptible door of vegetation, he discerned Poseidon's small upturned boat or corial buried in the grass. It could have been the black startling back of a boa constrictor. … The strangest figure he had ever seen appeared in the opening of the bush. … The old man's hair was white as wool and his cheeks—covered with wild curling rings—looked like an unkempt sheep's back. The black wooden snake of skin peeping through its animal blanket was wrinkled and stitched together incredibly.

(p. 155)

Now, Fenwick's view of Poseidon is the curious sensation of a man related in part to the animal kingdom, the world of the serpent; at the same time a man who has elements of the lamb and also a peculiar kinship with the elements. And Fenwick is baffled by that figure. …

Is this because Poseidon is a mythical figure?

In part, but also because of the potential Poseidon brings out of the past, a potential which has in it elements of danger as well as majesty. But it is interesting to note how Poseidon sees Fenwick: a little further up in the passage Poseidon stares through “the clotted memory of darkness” and he sees the two men “sitting on the water before him” as if he didn't see the boat at all. The hull of the boat is obliterated and the men are literally “sitting on the water.” Now, one must remember that those men believe they are bringing good news: the construction of a reservoir will entail that of a new settlement. But the engineers are messengers of death without knowing it because, in fact, Poseidon has to be uprooted from the area. His antecedents had been slaves who had fled into the Canje region, an area where the whole line of catchments, the main and subsidiary watersheds, are broken and, as a consequence, a great reservoir of water is built up. This is regarded as an “area of black world” because, although the water is very clean, the green grass creates a startling contrast. The slaves who escaped in the seventeenth century could secrete themselves in that part of the country; they hid on islands surrounded by great moats of water and it was very difficult to pursue them. Now, Poseidon had been living there for a long time and he had a group of men who had worshipped him as a god for nearly one hundred years. The engineers and surveyors may be bringing benefits, but they will also uproot Poseidon and his group. They are messengers of death without having any notion of this; their hands are raised to slay but they cannot see this. That involuntary element is, I believe, of great importance. Fenwick was not able, when he met Poseidon, to see him clearly: Poseidon was not a transparency; he had written into him a combination of animal motifs, related in part to the annunciation of humanity. One usually uses the concept of annunciation in the Christian context (and it is interesting to note the mystical evolution where a god descends over Mary) but, long before the Christian age, there were motifs of annunciation where the gods would appear as animals who would marry or have sexual intercourse with a woman of the particular tribe to whom the god addressed himself. And whenever there is a crisis in which an age is dying, there is an annunciation written into it. With the creatures who appear to have their roots both in the human world and the animal world, one has a grouping of motifs. All of this is extreme, fantastic. Therefore the person who cannot sustain the enormity of such reality must, whether he likes it or not, conceal elements of that reality which are unbearable at a certain level; it is too much, whether one thinks in terms of terror or of ecstasy. And when Fenwick looks at Poseidon, he has to see certain things and evade them at the same time. When Poseidon looks at the engineers, he also sees the kind of news which they are bringing, which, in fact, relates to his death. And they also see him as an ancestral figure; but, just as Perseus slew his grandfather by throwing the disc, in the same way Bryant is to slay Poseidon, whom he loves. Now this kind of dimension, if you begin to see it, does not open into utter transparency because this is imaginative fiction, not journalism … Imaginative fiction should have an element in it in which you begin to sense the unbearable notions of reality. Without disclosing the whole truth, various images suggest that there are kinds of encounters which are more enormous than one believes. When you see that, it becomes possible to relate to what happened to Catalena. …

Could you comment upon her importance in the novel?

She is the woman who came in to work with Perez, the Portuguese, who wanted to gamble his wife to the men in the party. Thus she seemed to be in a position of degradation. After Poseidon's death, she was also seized by his followers, and Bryant had been unwittingly responsible for that. Now, Catalena is saved by the intervention of a nameless figure who hovers over her. There is an irony planted in that scene because of the two followers who were ready to bring the whole world to an end in order to accomplish their revenge. Over the centuries those people who had fled had finally come up against the wall and, as far as they were concerned, the world could be brought to an end. They saw a man standing in the stelling whom they mistook for Fenwick because he had given him his cape and hat. This was against government regulations, but he had reached a stage where he could no longer abide by the regulations. So these two men mistook Chiung, the gauge-reader, for Fenwick; they hit him, believing they had killed him, and fled into the jungle to tell their companions that the elaborate ritual of the slaying of the cosmos they had planned to perform could not take place because the police would be after them shortly. Now, they arrived upon the scene at the very moment when Catalena was on the point of being raped and she looked up and saw the figure circling over her. She tried to focus and it was a moment of extraordinary ecstasy for her because she thought she was going to be liberated from death, yet she could not see the face because that face, as I said before, cannot be borne. Ecstasy of that kind is beyond the human range of endurance. Ironically she saw the faces of the enemies, the twins: her enemies had saved her against their will. We have that curious pattern all the time, the confession that all of us are involved in action which bears consequences we cannot endure and yet, when we confess to those consequences, a doorway is opened which allows some principle to come in and restore the culture or society. Without the confession there is no regenerative capacity. This is partly at the heart of the novel.

Are we entitled to consider that Catalena is saved by the legacy of Poseidon in spite of his followers?

Poseidon's followers have decided to kill her—and in this sense Poseidon is, through his followers, a “dangerous bridegroom.” The shadow of his personality, although he is no longer there, invests his followers, who are about to slay this woman in his name:

Nothing protected her now, she dreamed feverishly; she was a naked spirit indeed without constellation or cover, form or condition. Nothing save the ridiculous light of compassion. … And yet someone (whether she knew his nameless coat or not) stood over to save her in the light of unconditional circumstances. … She tried to focus her eyes but he vanished, leaving a picture framed in the place, the wild twins who had haunted Chiung, and Fenwick and the crew that very night. … Poseidon's company knew them as the two members of the jury they had sent to collect the deeds of the law.

(p. 255)

These are the two members, the two thieves they decided to burn. In other terms, they were contemplating the destruction of the cosmos through this ritual. Their horror at the death of Poseidon was so great that they wanted to bring the whole cosmos to an end and the twins arrived just at that moment … As Catalena Perez lies on the ground, she sees a figure walk over like a nameless coat; a nameless presence hangs over her and brings her joy, ecstasy, and then what appears in the place of this one figure are the twins, the two men who thought they had killed Fenwick. They believed the police were pursuing them and they came to their companions and said: “Look, we no longer have time to pursue with the elaborate ritual of rape and murder. We will have to abandon the project and escape.” The twins appear at the moment Catalena sees that majestic, nameless presence hovering over her, and she cannot bear this. Her vision of ecstasy is unbearable … The point I would like to make is that, unless one is able to confess to how one's hand is raised, without one knowing it, against one's fellow men, one cannot be saved. Unless one is aware that one slays, one cannot be rescued. Now, we all slay all the time without knowing it: some of the money in our banks has probably come from places where men are mining dangerous metals, coughing their lungs out, spitting their lives up. We don't know where our money comes from, do we? Or we can start with innocent experiments like euthanasia and end up with holocaust. The hand is always raised … If the engineers don't know they bring a message of death as well as good news, they cannot sense the vision of joy and ecstasy in which the bridegroom lifts the helpless creature out of hell as it were. That is part of the riddle of form.

Are we entitled to read The Secret Ladder as an autobiography?

It is not really autobiographical because there are elements in imaginative fiction which transform one's immediate historical references and circumstances. Curiously enough, this novel sprang out of an event which occurred when I and this crew were working on the Canje River as surveyors. Now, this land, the Canje River, is overshadowed by a peculiar sense of beauty and, at the same time, by the imprint of generations and centuries of people finding refuge there—a sense of oppression. What happened is that I had to cope with a man who was undergoing a breakdown: he used to come to me and talk every day about his problems and we'd spend time discussing them; this was an additional burden on top of my work, but I managed to cope with it. I was suddenly summoned to the head office and a colleague of mine was sent to take over. He had just got married and used to leave every week to see his wife. Two weeks later, someone came and said to me: “Have you heard what has happened? Melville has been shot.” The man who shot him was the one who used to come and speak with me every afternoon, and in fact Melville did not have time to deal with this man. This man had shot Melville, another man, and then had killed himself. The whole thing haunted me profoundly and, in a sense, the character called Chiung relates to the Chinese member of the surveying party who was shot. Melville relates to Fenwick. And Loy, the man who shot him, relates to Weng. Many fictions, you know, come from deep-seated matters in your own life which get into you at a very deep level and then grow out of you in the shape of fiction. But as it grows out, all the characters are transformed. So it is not Loy, though the seeds of Weng come out of Loy. There was a camp attendant there, but he was not the Gorgon's head I presented as Jordan, though his name was Jordan. The whole thing takes on a life of its own, begins to change … When one knows one could have been shot instead of one's friend, had one remained there, these events can trigger off imaginative fiction. The shape and form of it becomes imaginative. It is not a history, it is not autobiographical.

Isn't Fenwick's choice ultimately a moral one and a problem which goes beyond questions of performing one's trade as a surveyor, beyond being efficient?

Yes, it is a problem. It is part of the question raised by the novel as to whether technology will simply conform to patterns of conquest. This has bedevilled societies around the globe. These issues have to do with imaginative life and, in the novel, part of the solution to this lies in the way we relate what is external to ourselves to what is inside ourselves. Certain things may be technologically right but we have to understand, sincerely and profoundly, how we come abreast of this technological advance. Our culture, system of education, psychic awareness must be deepened if we are to carry this burden of technology; otherwise, we'll simply become slaves to it.

Would you say you refuse to provide a solution, at least an explicit one, and let the irony of situations take care of answers? How do you reconcile the illusion created in fiction and actual problems in society which cannot wait for answers?

The way the human individual is constituted makes it impossible for him to solve those problems at a stroke, because in solving them you are carrying burdens of knowledge that you cannot cope with. It is necessary for engineers and scientists to continue. We can hope to be able by degrees to solve problems in a way which makes our civilization bearable. We confess to the worst consequences of our actions and also make it possible for some resource which lies in the genius of humanity to come to our aid. This genius will not come to help us if we deceive ourselves that everything we do is utterly transparent. We are all walking forward in darkness but we must acknowledge it because it protects us in a sense from the full knowledge that we cannot bear. The form of imaginative fiction is a movement like that. It opens up areas in ourselves, helps us grasp conflicts and eclipsed sensibilities, urges us in a way that allows us to transform our age. This is my view at least, because so many writers believe that writing must conform to the biases of the reader and he will consume the book like a piece of fish or cake, whereas imaginative fiction is a genuine initiation into kinds of knowledge which cannot be borne unless we go through the initiation step by step and begin to see ourselves for what we are, the things we do without intending to do them and at the same time the joy and ecstasy which we can bear without committing ourselves to some extremity which would destroy us. Some people take drugs without considering that their body cannot bear the total burden of ecstasy, nice as it is. And at the same time there are children starving, in India for instance, and if we were to hear the cries of those children we would go mad and despair of our civilization. We have to protect ourselves from the full knowledge of those problems in order to grapple with them. We can either deceive ourselves by having fiction which simply illustrates our biases or we can see that the imaginative experience is necessarily complex, addressing itself intimately to what is at stake when we begin to see it.

There may be a victory of morality through changes in the personality of Fenwick and others; they may come to a new awareness of the deep issues involved. Yet does not the end of the novel leave the victory of technology imminent, if not intact?

The end of the novel puts forth the position in which the scheme to destroy everything has failed. No human power can endure the destruction of the cosmos which Poseidon's followers contemplated. And the law here is implicit in the proposition. In the nineteenth century, scientists believed there was a universal law which they did not know; in the twentieth century, scientists like Einstein also believed in a universal law, but another version of it. Listen to the end of the novel:

Fenwick was dreaming a very strange dream: it seemed that an inquisition of dead gods and heroes had ended, an inquiry into the dramatic role of conscience in time and being, the dangers of mortal ascent and immortal descent. The one chosen from amongst them was crying something Fenwick was unable to fathom but the echoes of annunciation grew on every hand and became resonant with life.

(pp. 258–59)

The word “annunciation” is important. The Christian age was ushered in by an annunciation in the form of a dove that descended on the woman Mary. In the Greek and Roman worlds, the gods also appear dressed as birds or animals. And Mary is the maiden of the tribe, whatever the tribe is. There is a mystical evolution which seems to exist in this ancient notion of the human world coming into conjunction with the animal world—think of the pre-Columbian myth of Quetzalcoatl. Now Poseidon has all these animal features woven into him and he stands as the threshold of a kind of annunciation. There are other peculiar symbols like that. Catalena is at one level the fallen and abused woman, but hovering over her is Andromeda. I'm not imposing this on the novel: Andromeda was nailed to the rock and it was Perseus who rescued her. If Andromeda had been crucified as a kind of muse/goddess, would there have been a need for Christ? This suggests that Andromeda metamorphoses Catalena, vulnerable as she seems, and this is part of the annunciation. Humanity always makes a leap, sometimes it makes a leap in the middle of crisis, as if one's consciousness rises and one is able to cope with some kind of immense insight which would otherwise devastate one. The novel runs in various ways: you have the crisis affecting the whole society; you have the possibilities of annunciation, of rebirth. Fenwick senses, at last, that this change will occur through crisis, just as the birth of Christ occurred when the Roman civilization was dying. You don't have to be a Christian to look at this. Think of Yeats speaking of annunciation as a dreadful device, with the lines that speak of “the beast slouching to Bethlehem to be born,” which some people interpreted as meaning the Fascist monster. I don't accept Yeats's judgement except as a practical one. I mean that Poseidon's followers misinterpreted his life: Poseidon himself would never have consented to the rape of Catalena. He was “a beast slouching to Bethlehem to be born” only because his followers had misinterpreted who he was. We can misinterpret those figures who are our guidance in our myths. Suppose the followers of a non-violent leader would use violence to punish his murderers. Thus could the annunciation become twisted into a monstrous device. Even though the dangers are real, the principle of the annunciation is there.

There is a strong undercurrent towards the spiritual throughout the book, but does it not remain underground? The facts and violence are much stronger …

You have to bear in mind that one is not involved in a fantasy, in something unreal. The facts of which you speak do have their ascendancy in our age but I am also convinced that we can transform it. The forces which can transform it are to a certain degree obscure. This is why we are tested to come into dialogue with them; they do not give themselves to us easily; we have to surrender to them, to take risks in the name of the annunciations which are always threatened. The thing that has glory in it is threatened and has to come into a certain degree of obscurity. This is a word people don't like to hear; they want everything plain. You must feel the truth and sense its reality as having deep and enduring pertinence but as being afflicted by the dangers of our age.

The novel leads up to one direction: at the end of the fourth day, Fenwick takes steps to communicate with the exploited. Yet there is a kind of comedy of errors and, in the end, his better intentions are defeated and tragedy occurs, does it not?

Remember that Fenwick did an almost irrelevant thing that sparked off what you call the tragedy. He gave his coat to Chiung and broke the government regulations in order to do so. That is not an irrelevancy; indeed, it has moment in the novel and a singular momentum: the cloak, the nameless coat, was a signal as it hovered over Catalena to end her torment. Now, the direct order Fenwick gave achieved the opposite end to his intentions but the implication is that one must confess the error one commits even when one thinks one is doing the right thing. Through that confession one opens the door to an obscure element that acts on one's behalf; it is fuller and more majestic than the “right” things we do sometimes. There is a deeper knowledge about the actions we take which we may not realize. One must bring to bear in a fiction that sense of how strange we are (that we are much stranger than we think we are), and once we begin to grasp it, the shape of our self changes and we may be able to take more profound and meaningful actions, consciously, at a later stage. But that conscious capacity to act in the right way must always be tempered by the knowledge that we have upon us legacies from the past which we cannot throw off. We must continue to act with the sensation that our actions have roots in many layers of reality. If this comes home to us, then our actions become less dogmatic, more open to possibilities.

The fact that Fenwick could go out of his way to break the regulations is a very important element in the novel. He was not supposed to give his coat and forsake Jordan's advice that the crew must be treated harshly. Do you think this was both positive and negative?

Yes, I do; both at the same time.

Could you explain the character of Van Brock, which I find somewhat hard to understand in his relationship with his grandmother?

This relationship is complex and ambiguous. You should read again the passage on page 246 when his grandmother exasperates him: “She was blind to every reason, every promise, every suggestion, every plea to consider what she was doing, to return to her bed, lie still, wait and see.” He tries to console her for the loss of the ring but no one can, not even her grandson. Now, she had lost her ring and he thought that it had fallen into the chamber pot and been thrown into the pit. The grandmother was a continual worry to him and he flatly refused to go and get the ring among the faeces. But for her, that precise ring from her husband was a bond of love: “She could not bear the decapitation of memory.” She felt she must get the ring back at any price. And Van Brock was also “obsessed … with the ghost of glory.” Now, the conquistadors who had come to America under the banner of Christ had seized upon gold as the most valuable item—but what was gold if Christ was, in fact, a marvellous principle? In a way this old black woman was just as attached to her ring, not as gold but as a symbol of love, as the conquistadors were to gold, but her grandson was impatient and did not want to go down into the filth of the pit. Remember Bryant's somewhat similar reaction to his ancestor, Poseidon: he saw him only as an idol and did not perceive that Poseidon also needed guidance. In the same way, Van Brock seemed to strike, or slay, his grandmother psychically, if not physically, when he refused to get the ring and she died. Then out of remorse, he went down into the pit to get her ring and put it on her finger, but “was it an ancestor of life or of death he had created at that moment? He was obsessed with the self-indulgence and ordure of love as with the ghost of glory” (p. 246). He loves his grandmother but discovers that love may take one through processes different from what one had intended. It may request that you do unpleasant and miserable things for the one you love, like going down into the faeces to get the ring which a stupid old woman has allowed to fall into her chamber pot. A ring may be superstition, but this is human, and you must honour your antecedents; you can't cut them off at a stroke, you must perform rituals that they regard as precious. You do it in order to maintain the contract with the past. Van Brock's relation to his grandmother resembles Bryant's relation to Poseidon: they kill the ancestor they love without intending to do so and have to endure the consequences of their action, whether it is fighting in behalf of Catalena and witnessing the horrible things Poseidon's followers would have done to her or going down into the pit. I believe this is the majesty of being human in the way one can do so many things, strange things, that make a human being.

Is there not some latent conflict between the mythology in the novel, or its spiritual aspect, and what could be called the human aspect? The imagery and the plot at times seem to conflict and things become so complicated that your message, if there is any, becomes a bit lost. Did you refrain on purpose from making things clearer in the novel?

I don't believe that any writer should write down to people. Looking at the imagery in the novel, sensing its life is indeed essential. When you begin to do it, things begin to unfold. If you don't get that sense of unfolding imagery, you miss what is at stake in our civilization: it has shaped itself up in that way. If we can't respond to that demand in writer or reader, we are betraying ourselves. What is of the highest moment cannot be wrapped up in an ivory tower. Only in museums and institutions are heroic figures presented wrapped up as if they were outside of humanity, carved in marble or whatever. Yet the spark that exists in these heroic figures exists at the most despised level of our existence. So, if you are going to a village where people live as abjectly as Van Brock's grandmother, amid the filth and dirt and faeces, you should not forget that these people are the equals of any person. It is not enough to report critically on destitution, abjection and corruption; this is far too easy. The really imaginative writer must perceive and disclose the spark in every human being.

You have mentioned two important issues so far. One is the appearance of Poseidon to Fenwick, which is partly, as Fenwick perceives it, the rebirth of eclipsed peoples, because Poseidon belongs to a buried people. You also refer to the kind of novel you were writing and to the nature of creativity. Could you tell us whether you see those two notions as related: the notion of creativity and the renaissance of eclipsed peoples?

An imaginative writer begins to sense where his gifts may lie in terms of the kind of construction that appears in his work at an early stage. I sensed very early that there was much to do with objects that were like sculpture, objects saturated with minute elements that were painted, or inscribed in the structure of the work. Eventually, this was the lead into Palace of the Peacock in which, you may remember, the landscape opens like a curious kind of book. This is also a complex painting or sculpture. For instance, Vigilance sees the rocks under the water as carnival processions coming from the ages … One must remember that all those imprints existed in that period of the world, expeditions that had been made from far back in pre-Columbian times. Thus the landscape eventually opens up like a book to release the sensation that these sculptures are in it … Now, creativity has to tolerate to some degree some discovery which the imaginative writer makes about how the word, the verbal principle, is touched by something else. It might be sculpture or painting, or a sense of hieroglyphics that imply music. Thus you have a rich potentiality. But it is the marriage of the two, the transparent and the opaque, that ushers in that kind of annunciation of consciousness, whether in terms of fiction or whether the fiction associates itself with painting, sculpture, or music. That is the price one has to pay for creativity in our age of aesthetic pursuit. Newspapers seem to give us transparent news without the reader making any effort; he pays no price except his fifty cents to buy the paper; but what does he really know of the world, having read it? The price one has to pay for imaginative art is the marriage of what one would have thought is quite clear and, in fact, is strangely tinctured or pigmented and what is opaque. Out of that combination, one is able to get levels of communication in which one could relate all sorts of actions that are occurring and of which one knows nothing. Those actions reside in us. They have been occurring in terms of antecedents, in terms of those who relate our antecedents. Such profound dialogue is what may help you to salvage some kind of marvellous hope. But once it buries its own complexity away from itself, it resides in something that may appear to be nice but which is false. It is difficult for us to sense that kind of conception. At that moment the possession is altered into sculptured freedom; it becomes something that has holes or crevices in it, that allows the weak human being to conceive of himself or herself as supporting God. This is a fantastic notion, that a weak human being should sustain God, who leans on him. This is freedom, paradoxically, because at that moment one is able to sense that one has been sculptured at different levels; one is reborn with a different sense of one's responsibility and one's community. One can sense that one's relationship with all creatures is so remarkable that there is an evolution available to one out of the ways one has been slain or sliced. For example, every human being relates in a sense to the serpent, or the dog—we know that our constitution is composed of random elements, the brain being sometimes at war with the womb. We come out of areas of the past we seldom see together, whose unity is paradoxical because they are also in random conjunction. That randomness now becomes a marvel. What is slain becomes something that slices itself up differently into a new composition, becomes a slice of mystical evolutionary process. Thus when we look at Poseidon he seems to have the boa constrictor and the lamb in him. Or in the pre-Columbian myth of Quetzalcoatl, the economy of the bird and the snake is the ground for a mystical evolution that relates part to part. In other words, the long slaughter that has existed between creatures lends itself to another slicing up and another composition and the artist may be an agent in this. The human animal is conscious of that annunciation. If we get to the character, remember that, in a sense, the character creates the writer. I wouldn't be here if it were not for Fenwick.

Would you comment on the evolution of your work? From the Guyana cycle, with Heartland as a transitional novel, you seem to move to a central part which ends with “Arawak Horizon.” And then, there is another set of novels starting with Black Marsden. Yet the same conception of the use of language and imagination runs through all the books. The evolution which seems to take place relies very much on certain privileged metaphors which you use in particular novels … How would you see that evolution from Palace of the Peacock to The Tree of the Sun?

What has been happening is that there are varying emphases on dismemberment and metamorphosis. Thus, for example, in Palace of the Peacock you have the metamorphosis of the muse figure coming right up to the end. There is Mariella who appears to be exploited by Donne; and the Arawak woman who appears on Mariella's mission is in a sense Mariella, but you are seeing her at a much greater depth than you saw Poseidon because she seems possessed by some element in her; you see her in the boat when this immense metamorphosis occurs and she becomes a young and normal woman. But you must remember that the crew are then in very great danger and the scales are stricken from their eyes. They can hear as well what they never heard before: their exposure to reality is abnormal. When Caroll falls in the river and dies, the woman appears in the ship. Later on, you have the woman like a candle with long, flowing hair. … That peculiar metamorphosis of the muse in many American novels is an element I find myself pondering over. In Invisible Man, I notice that all of Ralph Ellison's muse figures remain uniformly the best: every time the invisible man awakens from the trauma of some hideous experience, he is at a disadvantage and the muse figure remains uniformly the best, as in many novels in the old realistic medium. Therefore you have the dimensions of dismemberment and metamorphosis and, in Palace of the Peacock, the accent is on metamorphosis even though the dismemberment is there. When you come to The Eye of the Scarecrow, the accent is much more on dismemberment. It is necessary in the book because … well, Idiot Nameless' confession in the end has to be seen against these dismemberments if one is to descend into the possibilities of metamorphosis which are also included in the novel. But the whole shape and texture are different. Later, in Ascent to Omai, at the very outset when the man feels he has been decapitated, when he pictures himself as having a bump on his forehead, he senses all these stigmata—without that you would not get the curious suggestion of a multiform universe in which you move out of dimensions in the present; the therapy comes from a confession. In Black Marsden (by the way, in The Angel at the Gate, which is coming out next year, Father Joseph is called Joseph Marsden), Black Marsden is a figure endowed with terrifying hypnosis. Yet he is a teacher and without him Goodwin would never have come into his aloneness. … Well, one is in a position now to look back on some of these novels as if one hadn't written them and to discuss them without too much guilt. … Thus I find the shifting emphasis of dismemberment and metamorphosis runs in different fields and at different levels; they offer different possibilities of tracing what I call the “archeology of the muse,” so that while the novels may appear to be very different in form and texture they just relate as one long work.

You began by calling your fiction “novels of fulfilment” as opposed to “novels of consolidation” and then you talked of “the heterogeneous novel” and then of “the novel of painting.” Do these names express a specific development in your conception of the novel?

Take the novel as painting. There one comes into areas in which one confesses that one is blind to some degree to what one sees. The painting would mutate across years and generations. The way we see El Greco is not the way people who lived in his age saw him. Or Van Gogh, or Cézanne, or the nineteenth-century African masks which were called the by-products of savages. Now these are prime elements in every museum, for Picasso's dialogue with African masks was a phenomenal dialogue, as well as Henry Moore's dialogue with pre-Columbian sculptures. This question of how one sees and yet does not see, of how one does not see and yet sees—the painting writes itself in this. Don't forget da Silva's self-portraits are portraits in which he is wearing a mask from previous ages. He paints himself as Magellan, as Cuffey, the black rebel, as an English aristocrat, etc. … As he goes along, he slips out of each mask and relates to each age in its terrifying implications. But he slips out because he is able to sense some mystical evolution of consciousness going through. He is surrounded by muse figures as well, like Manya, who lives in a dreadful space with everything scattered over the place and then becomes a kind of flying madonna; and there is Queen Jenine, the woman who has an abortion but relates herself to Adam, out of whose side the rib was plucked. She sees there is a price for fertility and thus one can make a sacramental connection: the abortion is inevitable if one is to get a notion of fertility, or else it becomes a banality. To go back to your question, when I said “fulfilment” I was using a term that should be qualified, because there is no absolute fulfilment. I was seeking a term, I see it now, to suggest that the novel of consolidation relates to a heterogeneous society in which all the values are taken for granted. What you consolidate is what you eclipse. You have no notion of the depth of the eclipse, until you open it by opening the consolidation. The notion of fulfilment allows those forces to play against each other as they never did before, when you are conscripting them within a ground of values that made no concession to what was apparently alien to itself. So you have fulfilment, heterogeneity. These were, to some degree, intellectual phrases I had to use to answer questions about the work I was doing for which I had no answer. All the answers really lie in the imaginative work. If you are able to become detached and look at your work as if the characters were writing you, then you no longer have that antagonistic relationship, which would be the case if you were simply reporting them as if they were your subjects—you become their subject in a sense … These were intellectual devices to explore what one senses at great intuitive depths, which was that you had to have a play of forces with what one does not normally see in discussions of the novel form. Because the tendency is often only to think of ways to feed the mass audience or what the biases of the patrons are. In fact, the novelist is an agent of the muse. This is a very difficult thing to maintain, but I do. I can't argue that. There is no logical answer to that. But I do maintain it.


  1. The Secret Ladder, in The Whole Armour and The Secret Ladder (1963; London: Faber and Faber, 1973), p. 152. Further references are incorporated in the text.

Reinhard W. Sander (essay date spring 1983)

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SOURCE: Sander, Reinhard W. “The Quest for Form: Wilson Harris' Contributions to Kyk-over-al.World Literature Written in English 22, no. 1 (spring 1983): 17–27.

[In the following essay, Sander assesses Harris's early development as a writer by focusing on his contributions to the journal Kyk-over-al between 1945 and 1960.]

Form and content are then inseparable.
In fact everything is Form—the mystery is Form.

—Wilson Harris, 19551

The literary magazine Kyk-over-al was edited and published by A. J. Seymour from 1945 to 1961. It appeared half-yearly and contained short fiction, plays, poetry, critical articles, and reviews that originated in Guyana and the West Indies. Its emphasis, however, was clearly on poetry and the theoretical debate about the quality and direction of a distinctive West Indian literature.2 Wilson Harris contributed numerous poems and articles to the pages of Kyk-over-al, as well as several pieces of short fiction. His contributions appeared fairly regularly in the magazine, from the very first issue of Kyk in 1945 to the very last issue in 1961.3 The magazine therefore contains a substantial body of writing by this author which yields some insights into his development preceding the publication of his first novel, Palace of the Peacock, in 1960.

It seems to me that there are three major phases of development in Harris' contributions to Kyk-over-al. A first, very short phase (1945–1948) contains Harris' earliest attempts at both fiction and poetry. In phase two (1948–1954) he embarked on a theoretical debate on the question of literary form. At the same time he continued his personal quest for a suitable form through writing poetry, and during this period he seemed to have abandoned the writing of fiction. Two collections of poetry, Fetish (1951) and Eternity to Season (1954), are the fruit of this second phase, and many of the poems from these collections were published during this period in Kyk. The third phase (1954–1960) reveals that Harris had privately continued to experiment with fiction: during this period he published an excerpt from a novel in progress which can be identified as a possible early version of The Secret Ladder.4 Further significant theoretical statements also appeared, but the publication of poetry dropped and finally came to an end. Harris' last contribution to Kyk-over-al was a piece of short fiction that marks the threshold to the post-1960 period, with its similarity to Palace of the Peacock in structure and style.5 Since Rolstan Adams has recently published a very informative article on Harris' early poetry,6 my discussion of these three phases in Harris' early development will concentrate on the fiction and theoretical articles which appeared in Kyk-over-al.

The two pieces of short fiction published during the first phase are entitled “Tomorrow” and “Fences Upon the Earth.” In “Tomorrow” (1945)7 the first-person narrator encounters an old artist who for years has been working on a statue but is unable to complete its face:

It was the beginning of a face, with blind eyes, tormented, struggling to be born, struggling for vision. There was a promise in the face but that was all. There was a promise of a noble head, but that promise had to develop from a sinister, unshapen mass. There were cruel lines about this head, too, and about this face, that were fighting to emerge, to become dominant and enduring features.

In his despair over the unfinished work the artist explains to the narrator:

Maybe I do not understand. Maybe the new people to be born are beyond my genius. I shall not be the one that shall understand. But someone will come out of the byways of the world and he will understand this new people, because maybe he will be one of the new people. His will be a new story, the beginning of a new heritage, the end of today, the beginning of the dream that will help to shape tomorrow.

The meeting between the narrator and the artist is suddenly interrupted by the entry of the artist's young housekeeper, who explains that she has just murdered her lover and is being sought by the police. While recounting the disillusionment and frustration which led to this desperate act, her gestures (especially her uplifted arms) are compared by the narrator to the posture of the statue. When she decides to give herself up to the law, explaining,

I've been running away from myself too long all these years. Sometimes it's hard for people like me to know what are the things we really want in this world. Maybe every time we run away from ourselves, we make it harder and harder to find out. Maybe if we go on running we'll never find out. Maybe it's time we start meeting ourselves, knowing ourselves. I believe that's what we're going to do from now on

the narrator has a brief vision of her face:

Her clouded, obscure expression had lifted, like a veil moved aside to reveal a flash of splendid beauty: a beacon light flashing out quickly across wastes of darkness. Then her face grew clouded again, bitter and obscure.

Although the implied connection between this moment of illumination and the face which the artist is seeking is obvious, the question still remains, for the woman, the artist, and the observing narrator:

Who would hear or understand the dark meaning of her life? Couple the light and the shadow, the good and the bad into a true pattern? And what was that pattern?

One detects in this short story themes, figures and images in embryo that were to be developed in greater depth in Harris' novels. The idea of the need for self-knowledge at the individual and community level and the attempt to reconcile opposing aspects of the psyche and the community emerge clearly. In the later novels female figures like the woman in this story would become catalysts in the process of psychic reintegration for the male protagonists. In “Tomorrow,” however, the first-person narrator remains the observer and the female figure herself undergoes the change. The rudiments of the symbols and images which Harris uses in his novels to convey his sense of the complexity and duality of human life and nature can also be identified. The unfinished head of the statue, for example, with its potential to be invested with good or evil or both, is a familiar device, as well as the image of an eye as a symbol of interior vision. This is how the narrator gives us his first impression of the old artist, for instance:

Suddenly I felt the door behind me moving. It had opened slightly. Looking back, I saw an eye appear at the crevice. … The door opened wider still. The eye grew to a face, the face a form: the form of an old man standing in the doorway … I was held by a peculiar expression of his eyes: a sort of intensity, fire, a sort of hunger. These qualities contrasted strangely with a very old face, a face, lined, thin, fragile and kindly. …

However, because these images and symbols belong to no larger organic pattern of association they strike the reader as strained and artificial within the narrative framework of the short story. Furthermore, the obtrusive narrator repeatedly spells out the meaning of these images, allowing the reader no opportunity to make the necessary connections in his imagination. Perhaps the least successful of these symbolic signposts is the author's introduction of the Kaieteur Fall as a painting in the old artist's living room. In this setting and form the vitality of what in other contexts has become one of Harris' most complex and liberating symbols is unable to produce associations of its own, and its meaning has to be explained by the old artist:

It has power. Beauty. Mystery. It is a symbol for the land. The symbol of power waiting to be harnessed. Of beauty that goes hand in hand with terror and majesty. Of the mystery that lies in men's hearts, waiting to be explored, given form and direction and purpose.

Harris himself seems to have been aware of the limitations of such explanations. In his second short story, “Fences Upon the Earth” (1947),8 the first-person narrator, like the narrator in “Tomorrow,” is forced to admit at the end of his tale: “Yes. I know what you will say. The words I have used are inadequate. Forgive me. I know it was inevitable that it should be so. The whole thing had been secret and wordless.” The “secret and wordless” thing is an encounter with the Amerindian presence in the Guyanese interior, an encounter that provides some insight into the profound and disturbing impression that the Guyanese landscape and its ancestral inhabitants were to leave on the mind of the future novelist. On a stroll away from his workmates in the interior, the narrator is overwhelmed by the vastness of the forest he has entered, whose “mighty trees closed in over [his] head”:

I thought that surely I would hear the trees grow in this forest. They were so solid, so timeless. One seemed each moment to hear them quietly settling deeper and deeper; their mighty roots thrusting farther and farther into the ancient earth. It was all very strange and fantastic and beautiful.

In this frame of mind the narrator encounters an Amerindian fisherman, who seems to be an organic part of the environment and a symbol of dignity and wholeness:

I knew in those moments the greatest happiness of my life. For the first time that I could remember I looked upon a human being standing upon the earth, not falsely, by force or subterfuge, or bravado, or by any sort of empty pretension, but very simply, as though to own the earth were to carry the most natural and easeful burden in the world … His limbs were powerful. They had the perfection of the young trees that stand rooted in the forests, breathing forth an ageless symmetry in their being.

The narrator's ruminations are interrupted by the appearance of his employer, the representative of a large mining concern, who accuses the Amerindian of trespassing on company land. To the narrator this intruder appears “a very alien and ridiculous figure in this part of the world … a strong man and a ruthless one.” For a moment violence seems inevitable, but then the narrator observes what he calls a miracle: the Amerindian's “transition from fury to calmness,” which allows him to dismiss the presence of the intruder and walk calmly away. The intruder interprets this as a sign that his words have succeeded in cowing the Amerindian, but the narrator himself explains, rather heavy-handedly, what he sees as the real significance of the Amerindian's reaction:

But in a flash [the Amerindian] had spoken to me in his wordless language. What he said was this:—Let the stranger build his fences. Something divine in me prevents me from killing him. I could kill him easily. I could crush his flabbiness to pulp. But to what end? What is the use of violence? There has been enough violence on the earth. Nothing can be built or be preserved by violence. I have no fences to build. I shall trust to my destiny. I shall trust to the forces that brought me on this spot I call my home. I shall trust to the deep things that tie me to the earth to give me my rightful place in the sun. These things shall never fail me. I know. I believe. I keep faith with the earth. I trust God. That is enough. There is no other way. I shall be patient.

In his attempt to explain the significance of the Amerindian the author becomes lost in ever narrowing circles of rationalization, which, rather than communicating the unique qualities of stillness and strength suggested by his mysterious figure, connect the encounter with facile pacifism and Christian submission. It is worth noting that in the poetry Harris was also writing at this time he is able to communicate this particular experience much more successfully through a few striking images. The fourth stanza of a poem called “Village in America,” which appeared in the same issue of Kyk-over-al that carried the short story “Fences Upon the Earth,” contains this description of Amerindians:

They have a slowness and a sleepiness upon them.
They stand mute and execrated
like statues of priceless ebony
curbing a monstrous strength
curbing the violence of their limbs:
until the deep smile comes in patient grandeur
upon the darkness of their features.
This is the culmination of their strange beauty.(9)

Harris' apparent failure at this stage to mould prose fiction into a vessel for the communication of intuitive insights and vision and his relative success in doing so in poetry may account for his concentration on poetry between 1948 and 1954. During this second phase some of his most important theoretical articles were also published, in which he explained for himself and to the readers of Kyk-over-al the necessity of his relentless quest for a new poetic form. In his reviews of several of the small volumes of West Indian poetry that now began to appear he deplored the writers' imitation of traditional poetic concepts which he felt were alien to the West Indian environment. He singled out in particular the tendency towards a “consolidation” of the romantic spirit that in its own time and place had been a liberating impulse. Instead of becoming involved in a “realisation of original form,” Harris felt the West Indian poet had been trapped by a “static approach” and by “formula,” and he urged a “liberation from formula” as a necessary first step to end the creative impasse in which poetry had become “ineffectual ornament” and “imposing facade.”

The poet of the moment has to accomplish a leap. He can no longer secure himself in a collective fashion but must surrender himself in actual symbols—as distinct from recollected symbols—even though the shock of his surrender presents great difficulty to an audience “whose encased lives before the Infinite” have found their measure in collective dreams and whose formula for existence has always evaded the actual world.10

Harris made it quite clear in his articles that his quest for form was not to be mistaken for a concern with mere aestheticism. At the centre of his thought was (and remains) his commitment to social engagement. What he wanted was a return to the idea of “man as the creator of values, rather than values as the creator of man.” In 1953 he wrote, “The profound task of transforming society must sooner or later become the crucial concern of all men of sensibility.” The writer had a responsibility to deal with “the actual state of the world: its processes, its changes, its needs.”11

Harris' social vision has always been an optimistic one. As a Caribbean writer he had been early convinced of the potential of the Americas. If New World man could be made to understand that he had his origins in what Harris termed the great movement “of fleeing institutions of bondage in Europe and Asia,” he would not, Harris argued, continue with the self-destructive “transplantation of static disciplines into a new soil and new world.”12 He would accept his “bare world” of mountains, jungles and rivers as a positive beginning and learn to explore imaginatively the buried values and caveats of the Amerindian civilizations, which had grown in an authentic and organic way out of the same environment. For Harris this was not a nostalgic or atavistic return to the past. On the one hand he wrote:

The great civilisation of the American Indian, which was based on an agricultural norm, is a vivid example of an architecture of values made manifest from original conditions devoid of illusory masses or materials. Matter truly bore the imprint of genius, not the dead stamp of industralisation or the taboo of spirituality removed from sensuous direction. This was an assertion of human greatness truly epic in dimension. To realise it, is to be aware of the diminutive man of the cities of the world today …

On the other hand, Harris reminds his reader:

Of course we all know that the Aztec civilisation failed. Its failure was accelerated by contact with the individualism of an alien power … The priests of the Aztecs sacrificed living hearts torn out of the breasts of human beings. This horrible contradiction was the result of man becoming the toy of his religion. A contradiction developed between man who built a world, and the world he built which made him helpless.13

Harris' theories about poetic form, the potential of New World man, and the legacy of the ancient Amerindian civilizations began to be fused into practice in the poetry he wrote during this second phase. To a large extent the poems that appeared in Kyk-over-al between 1948 and 1954 as well as those published in the two collections, Fetish and Eternity to Season, succeed in breaking with the earlier poetic conventions, and the poet is able to create patterns of authentic symbols drawn from the Guyanese landscape, Greek mythology, and the Amerindian past to communicate his social vision.

Both Michael Gilkes and Rolstan Adams have suggested that after Eternity to Season Harris had “exhausted the vessel of poetry … [and] turned to prose fiction as his vehicle.”14 This estimate seems to be confirmed by developments within the third phase of Harris' contributions to Kyk-over-al, which are characterized by an eclipse of the power of images and symbols in his poetry. The Sun: Fourteen Poems in a Cycle appeared in 1955. Here the poet attempts to communicate his ideas by using the shapes of the poems themselves as a vehicle for meaning. The attempt to confine meaning within lines whose length was dictated by the rigid outlines of trees and crosses seems to have been self-defeating, and after this Harris ceased to experiment with poetic forms in the pages of Kyk. At this point he once more demonstrated that he had continued to experiment with fiction privately in the years since the publication of his two early short stories. Perhaps he had felt all along that the epic dimensions of his vision of man and society could not be contained within the dense economy of poetic form. Furthermore, his characteristic urge to communicate to as wide an audience as possible must have challenged him to conquer and transform the most popular form of prose narrative, the novel. The publication in 1954 of “Banim Creek,” which is described as an extract from an unpublished novel, suggests that Harris has been attempting longer pieces of prose fiction before he stopped publishing poetry.15 “Banim Creek,” however, is by any standards, even in comparison with his earlier short stories, an unsatisfactory piece. Rather than a single confrontation between two representative characters observed and interpreted by a first-person narrator, Harris attempts a larger canvas involving the development of a number of personal conflicts, each of which the first-person narrator must attempt to explain. Trapped within this apparatus of realistic fiction, especially by the demands of creating realistic characters, the extract can offer no full development of ideas or symbol. The function of the philosophizing narrator becomes particularly obtrusive as his comments are placed at the beginning and end of the action and introduce details of plot important to the rest of the novel that are even more distracting. It is possible that “Banim Creek” was part of a first draft of The Secret Ladder, but there is little resemblance beyond a similarity in superficial details of plot. At the opening of the extract the first-person narrator acquaints us with his three workmates, who are part of a group of tide readers in the Guyana interior. Their characters are summarized to prepare us for the conflicts which come to a head when all three become involved in the sexual pursuit of a Portuguese woman who sells vegetables to the men at the camp. Themes that become important in The Secret Ladder, such as responsibility for one's actions and the need for self-knowledge, are touched upon, and the Portuguese woman shares certain characteristics and functions with the later character, Catalena Perez. But the complex weave of character and motivation, symbol and reality of the later work is missing.

Wilson Harris published no more fiction until 1960 when he surprised his readers with the extraordinary achievement of Palace of the Peacock. Here the restraints of the conventional realistic novel are suddenly broken through and replaced by a fluid text which frees characters, plot and time to interact within a pattern of contrasting and interlocking symbols. Without access to possible earlier drafts one can only speculate about the creative process which altered Harris' fiction between 1954 and 1960. Was it a slow and tortuous process of revision or a sudden leap that occurred between “Banim Creek” and the novels of the Guyana cycle? A clue to the answer may perhaps be found in a critical article on Denis Williams' painting that Harris published in 1955 under the title “Two Periods in the Work of a West Indian Artist.”16 In this article Harris assesses the change in artistic vision and direction that he had observed in Williams' recent work. Of Williams' work before 1954 he writes:

He put everything he saw on canvas: fearful faces, desperate faces, demons, lust, the faces of newspaper vendors uttering mechanically the destinies of the world, faces coming out of subways, on buses, on the pavement, the faces of pregnant women—all against the actual harsh world of time and circumstance.

According to Harris, Williams was always desperately in need of ever larger canvases to paint what he saw, until he suddenly realized the artistic impasse to which his work was leading. There seems to have been no phase of transition. Williams destroyed a number of his works and proceeded to what Harris describes as “the renunciation of one period or style and the adoption of a new technical and spiritual revolution.” Williams' example may have been the catalyst for Harris to perform a similar revolutionary leap. Harris' description of Williams' new work also indicates the kind of result he himself would strive towards in his renunciation of earlier styles and techniques.

Most great paintings exercise power and they dominate the onlooker. They hold the onlooker captive. The onlooker is taken into the canvas. Denis Williams sought for ways and means to renounce painting in that traditional sense, and to free the onlooker, to extend him gloriously out beyond the confines of the canvas. He wished to set aside the painting that captures, and to discover a movement outward, a liberation of the person.

The implications that Harris drew from this process for the literary artist are clear: he himself would have to abandon what he later called “the novel of persuasion,” the canvas of realism, for a novel and canvas that would involve the reader in a process of associative reading; that would liberate him from the assumptions and values of conventional perception. And Harris underlines once more in his article on Williams his conviction that such a break with tradition was not the same as experiment for experiment's sake:

What [Williams] sought steadfastly to guard against, however, in his new experiments was the arbitrariness or mood that is characteristic of a new school of abstract painters at the present time in England and Europe. He did not wish to gamble with colour or intuition. He sought a work of art true in itself, true to a law and discipline of relationships.

In 1961 a short piece of prose fiction in Harris' new style was published in Kyk-over-al, as if to ensure that the magazine that had played such an important role in his development and in the development of West Indian literature in general should contain one example of the new form and content for which he had argued and worked in his earlier Kyk contributions. By a quirk of coincidence this was also the last issue of Kyk-over-al to appear, and to my mind it marks the end of an epoch in West Indian writing, which had been dominated by the debate about the form and direction that the literature of the emergent West Indian nations should take. Theory now gave way to practice. In Harris' last prose contribution, “Spirit of the Sea Wall,”17 although the first-person narrator of the earlier stories is once more present, his dominating role as interpreter and philosopher has disappeared and character and plot have become secondary features. The narrator who stands on the sea wall between the rising sea and the vulnerable town is no longer an observer. Instead he becomes an active participant in the symbolic drama between the eternal sea, bringer of life and death, and the land on which man has erected his frail civilization, his Godstown. Looking at the sea, the narrator feels like, or rather becomes, “a ghost” with “empty trouser-legs” and “scarecrow feet,” the city behind the sea wall, which lies below sea level, appears to be a “buried city,” a “toy city.” The pattern of images and symbols which connect the man and the city lead the reader into wider and wider circles of association that include the destruction and ruins of the city of Troy as well as the other buried civilizations that may once have stood on the site of Godstown. A similar pattern of contrasting images is used for the description of the sea's symbolic dual nature. The “maternal forgotten sea” of the beginning of the story appears to the “scarecrow” narrator as an old woman:

She was one of that curious sea of beggar women, patrolling Godstown like conscience and muse, who floated and devoured pennies and scraps. She knew how to hug the debris of the world to her bosom. She mumbled and sagged and groaned to my cocked scarecrow hat—“I know you wouldah fall down. Neither man nor god can fight the sea forever and for good. You don't know that? Sooner or later the old lady got to get you …” She was mumbling all the time a little crazily.

Her hands “smell and taste like if they dead and they living still.” The old lady appropriates the narrator's cocked hat or head and invests it with the life of her dead lover, a transposition that changes the threat of the sea to a promise of life. Harris achieves his most terrifying and successful image of the dual nature of the sea at the end of the story by allowing the old lady to be drowned by the incoming tide in the presence of the narrator whom she has transfixed. As she is drowning, the narrator perceives her in this way:

A magical bewitching change had occurred. She straightened her back. The wind and water blew and filled her limbs and bosom generously. Every wrinkle puffed and vanished and her eyes widened and sparkled. I saw her full breasts rising and swelling beneath my starred and cocked hat. The smell in her sea-self no longer revolted but turned keen as a knife slicing the air.

The reader who all along has been participating in this transformation without consciously registering that a drowning is being described on the realistic level is suddenly pulled back into the real world by becoming aware, with the narrator, of a curious crowd of onlookers who are vainly trying to reach the drowning woman and pull her back to the safety of the wall. Their earth-bound perspective is emphasized when, having failed in their rescue attempt, one of them cries: “‘She's dead …’ unable to encompass any other living thought.” Here at last, in “Spirit of the Sea Wall” we have Harris, the mature artist of Palace of the Peacock and the subsequent novels.


  1. In a review of Poems, by Leo I. Austin, Kyk-over-al, No. 20 (1955), p. 205.

  2. See Reinhard W. Sander, “An Index to Kyk-over-al: 1945–1961,” World Literature Written in English, 16, No. 2 (1977), 421–61.

  3. See note 2 and the bibliography of Harris' early writing in Wilson Harris, Explorations: A Selection of Talks and Articles, 1966–1981, ed. Hena Maes-Jelinek (Aarhus, Denmark: Dangaroo Press, 1981). In the July 1981 special issue of Kyk-over-al, A. J. Seymour has reprinted the four pieces of fiction that Harris contributed to Kyk between 1945 and 1961.

  4. In a personal communication Harris recalled that he wrote four novels during this period: Of Courage and Compassion,Heartland,Horseman, Pass By, and Almanac of a Jumbi. The manuscripts of these novels were later destroyed by the author himself. The excerpt referred to here is “Banim Creek,” a section of Of Courage and Compassion.

  5. This piece is “Spirit of the Sea Wall,” published in Kyk, No. 28 (1961), pp. 181–83. According to Harris it was an excerpt from Almanac of a Jumbi (1958) (see note 4).

  6. Rolstan Adams, “Wilson Harris: The Pre-Novel Poet,” Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 13, No. 3 (1979), 71–85.

  7. Kyk, No. 1 (1945), pp. 30–34.

  8. Kyk, No. 4 (1947), pp. 20–21.

  9. Kyk, No. 4 (1947), p. 7.

  10. Rev. of The Guiana Book, by A. J. Seymour, Kyk, No. 7 (1948), pp. 37–40.

  11. “Art and Criticism,” Kyk, No. 13 (1951), pp. 202–05, and rev. of Bim, No. 17, Kyk, No. 16 (1953), pp. 195–98.

  12. “The Reality of Trespass,” Kyk, No. 9 (1949), pp. 21–22.

  13. “The Question of Form and Realism in the West Indian Artist,” Kyk, No. 15 (1952), pp. 23–27.

  14. Michael Gilkes, Wilson Harris and the Caribbean Novel (London: Longmans, 1975), p. 15. See also Adams, “Wilson Harris: The Pre-Novel Poet.”

  15. “Banim Creek,” Kyk, No. 18 (1954), pp. 36–42 (see note 4).

  16. “Two Periods in the Work of a West Indian Artist,” Kyk, No. 20 (1955), pp. 183–87.

  17. See note 5.

Sandra Drake (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: Drake, Sandra. “Revolutionary Hope as Immanent Moment: The Writing of Wilson Harris.” In Process of Unity in Caribbean Society: Ideologies and Literature, edited by Ileana Rodríguez and Marc Zimmerman, pp. 168–75. Minneapolis: Institute for the Study of Ideologies and Literatures, 1983.

[In the following essay, Drake explores Harris's writing style in terms of the relationship between literature and society.]

This paper is a brief and somewhat preliminary outline of a project on which I am now working, an analysis of the work of the Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris. I am especially interested in how his difficult, peculiar and relatively inaccessible writing is to be regarded by people concerned with the relation between literature and society.

Harris' work also presents interesting questions of genre. I suggest that he is a writer of revolutionary insights, not alone in the text of his work but also in its texture—that is, in his use of language. Some have dismissed him as “elitist.” His work is difficult, but all literature is not merely obscure but impenetrable to those who cannot read. It is patronizing to suggest that literature be kept simple to accommodate those who do not read well—the “masses.” If literature has value, then the point is to make it—all of it—accessible, and the relevant question to ask of a given literary work is not whether it is difficult but whether it is worthwhile.

The classical nineteenth-century European novel is founded on certain assumptions about the nature of personal, individual identity (character both in the sense of novelistic personage and of the structure of what goes into an individual human identity); event, a very difficult category having to do with boundaries determined by assumptions of causality; and the interplay of character and event. All three assumptions have profoundly ideological implications.

In the work of Proust, Kafka, Joyce, Robbe-Grillet and many others, modern European fiction has seen the dissolution of these assumptions (as modern European society has seen the dissolution of many of the social arrangements and assumptions which supported them). Formally, Harris appears to be in their lineage, and in fact to carry many aspects of their technique to new lengths. Fundamentally, I suggest—in terms of the use he makes of them—quite the reverse is true. Where European writers, often by their own statements, are writing from their sense of the dissolution of their values, Harris' work is not a swan song but a hymn of regeneration. The modern world—ultimately one world system, economically—is in a constant complicated state of resurgence-and-decay. Harris may be in the literary tradition of Europe in many respects, but his sensibilities and much of his formation are Caribbean. The same resurgence-and-collapse, economic and cultural, has different implications and ramifications depending where in the system it is felt.

Further, Harris is an excellent writer of dialectical fiction. Just as development of many insights about economic and social workings first elaborated in the nineteenth century come to manifest fruition in our time, so many of the possibilities for literature implied in dialectical theories of the last century perhaps had to await economic and cultural developments of this epoch to be manifested. Certainly Harris' work is concerned with the forging of individual and communal identity in post-colonial Third World countries—a phenomenon of our time—and in its understandings draws on conceptions from the physical sciences also developed in our time. (Harris was trained and worked many years in Guyana as a land surveyor).

In terms of plot, Palace of the Peacock (1960), Harris' first book, is the story of a seven-day boat trip up a Guyanese river in pursuit of Amerindian laborers who have retreated before the conquistador-figure Donne. Eventually the ship wrecks itself and the entire crew—representative of the ethnic groups and mixtures in the Guyanese population—is lost. But, it develops, the journey has been taken before: the entire crew has already died in the river disaster. Relations of plot, event, character, sequence, thus become problematical, as do delineations between the natural and the conceptual world. Yet Harris is far from abstract. His sense of the concreteness and the claims of the physical world, including notably poverty and the physical reality of human suffering, deprivation and effort to work upon the world, is extremely strong:

Carroll trembled a little. I felt his work-hardened hands, so accustomed to abnormal labour they always quivered with a muscular tension beyond their years …

(Palace of the Peacock, p. 29)

Victor secured a scholarship at the age of ten … Came from a poor home—La Penitence and Albouystown. Wore a large hat (globe of a head, rings of hair); red eyes, white mouth—hunger and solder. Tin soldier of fortune. Painted black. Stage instructions as follows: Dip in fire. Plunge in water. Make for all seasons, weathers, rain, sun. Manufacturers El Dorado.

(Ascent to Omai, p. 32)

(Rajah suffered, as a child, he always remembered, from hookworm; and his empty devouring insides drove him to steal from his father to eat—in terror of being beaten if found out—though he knew that his parents would starve to provide him with a foul plate and scrap.

(The Far Journey of Oudin, p. 79)

Likewise, the recurrence of event in Harris is not at all a proposition of “cyclical history”; his point is quite the opposite. There is no going back in human history; but there is also no going forward until that human history is accepted and understood.

I saw … I was reliving Donne's first innocent voyage and excursion into the interior country. This was long before he had established himself in his brooding hanging house. Long before he had conquered and crushed the region he ruled, annihilating everyone and devouring himself in turn … I knew there were labouring people about but it had seemed that apart from his mistress—that woman Mariella—there was no one anywhere. Now she too had become an enigma; Donne could never hope to regain the affection and loyalty he had mastered in her in the early time when he had first seduced her …

(Palace, p. 25)

(In the context of this quotation it is important to know that Mariella becomes assimilated to the land, Guyana, both as history and as natural existence). Thus too the quotation from Donne's poem ‘Hymn to God My God in my Sickness” which opens Book III of Palace of the Peacock:

I tune my instrument here at the door
And what I must do then think here before

may be construed not as the earthly life being only a pale preliminary testing for the Hereafter, but as history being a journey which can never be exactly repeated; but in another sense is repeated with the present as the outcome of aborted “historical innocent journeys” repeated until social and historical forces are grasped and worked out.

Thus the final section of Palace of the Peacock, is not of a heaven unconstructed by earthly comprehensions and efforts. The House where the crew finds itself is one with the House which Cristo tells his lover Sharon they must build in Harris' later novel The Whole Armour. Cristo is on the lam from the police; his story is a long way from a religious vision, yet it is that vision in the sense of the New Jerusalem built here on earth. The House he invokes so passionately is the future of Guyana, which has to be forged in the concrete specificity of Guyana, with its concrete historical possibility.

In approaching Harris' work, a number of areas of inquiry suggest themselves. What role does human action play in affecting the outcome of the “journey”? In religious terms, this has been expressed in European Christianity as the relation between free will and determinism. In other, historically oriented terms, it is the question of the relation between human action and the development of those social forces which are the engines of history. Further, the question arises of the relation between that action and human consciousness or understanding of the action. Can anything that happens, individually or historically, ever have happened differently than it did? How? What is the nature of event? Or, put another way, of cause and effect? Of perspective (individual, class) in interpreting cause and effect? Temporal and spatial sequences? What is the nature of character or personal identity? What are the delineations between entities, individual and communal? (In Harris' work, the complex racial and cultural mixings of Guyana express this aspect of the boundary question). Between any given entity, individual or communal, over time?

Where is history?

Where is culture? Nature?

Where is Class?

Where is personality?

The artificially divided disciplines of anthropology, psychology, economics, political science, and—I would add—revolutionary action, have all, within their confines, wrestled with the above questions. They are a fundamental embarrassment, being an admission that the disciplines can't really find that which is supposed to be their subject and substance. None of the above exist; they are concepts, abstractions, conventions by which we agree to abide for convenience in constructing and communicating mental systems. They tend to be thought of as reifications of relationships, and the sense of dialectical relationship is easily lost.

Essential to dialectical thought is clarity about the relation between the concepts—and they are only concepts—of form and “content.” I suggest a useful way of thinking is to equate form with the appearance of the ‘real,’ with ‘what is’; and action with “content in perpetual (dialectical) motion.” Content (action) creates form, thus being itself in perpetual (dialectical) motion.

The opposition between the realization of something immanent and the development of something new through social struggle is a static dichotomy. A useful analogy might be to evolutionary development. In some sense, every new evolutionary development was always present potentially in seed—yet it isn't there until it appears on the earth, through a conjuncture of the “inner” (genetic) and the “outer” (environmental) mediated through struggle. (Not to be construed as Social Darwinism!)

Realization—with its double connotation of to make real and to take cognizance—can be read as another expression of false versus true consciousness, in the Marxist sense. The likelihood that social truth will be apprehended depends very much upon the vested interests and the rigid mental habits of categorization which members of a given class of society are likely to have. There is nothing about the mind of a member of any group to prevent its grasping social truth; members of privileged strata do so often enough, Karl Marx being a notable example. Nevertheless, the number of members of privileged classes of society who will come to the realization that certain social changes which are a threat to vested interest narrowly defined would also improve the quality of their lives as human beings is very small, proportionally. Class struggle becomes analogous to the energy expended by the individual in realizing truths blocked by habit, fear, and self-interest as understood in a narrow sense—thus constituting an “individual” in a narrow sense.

Frozen needs and frozen deeds, reiterated into definitions of self-interest, create boundaries of personality and of class. These frozen ideas and perceptions and relationships (forms) persist as false consciousness until changing content blasts them apart in social upheaval and forces the realization of their inadequacy. Perhaps we ultimately exist in our deeds and our consciousness of them. Perhaps history is the impress of frozen deeds, false boundaries, of class consciousness and class struggle, a fight for a realization, in both senses, of a truth both immanent and constantly created.

Finally, but vitally, the foregoing considerations of cause, effect, immanence and evolution raise the question of hope. How is the concept of hope to be regarded? In its most corrupt religious form, it becomes a denial of the importance of what is, and a rationalization for the support of an unjust status quo. (For a brilliant cinematic expression of this, see the scene of The Last Supper in the Cuban movie La ultima cena, or (The Last Supper).

“There is no hope, only action.” Revolutionary hope has to be identical with action, founded on discontent, on acceptance of the reality of the status quo and refusal to believe in the necessity of its being. Revolutionary hope is thus the content of discontent, with implications for the category of time and space. The present—the here and now—is the locus of discontent, the future is the locus of contentment (fulfillment): realized fulfillment of immanent possibility. In common terms, the present is real, the future is not-yet-real. But our future—as in evolutionary analogy—is present, in the present, in seed.

It is interesting and suggestive to consider Harris' work in conjunction with the writings of Ernst Bloch. Bloch speaks of “the dichotomy of man between his present appearance and his non-present essence.” (Das Prinzip Hoffnung, p. 1520)1, and says further:

There are communist philistines also. Men can want to be brothers without believing in the Father, but they cannot be brothers without believing in the far from banal contents and circumferences that were conceived religiously in the kingdom; and without maintaining this faith even though their knowledge—indeed, because their knowledge has destroyed all the illusions of the mythical faith. … the great religious teachers felt that man is called to do the unheard-of; … only the priests would use this excess of non-existence to defend the shortcomings of existence. … They were the ones who took the Christian faith and made it opium for the people … They made fixed transcendent images out of faith, instead of the fermenting immanent ones that stimulate a full existence and keep the will to it alive … And the faith of those who already are believers—faith in contents, in other words—has here the thoroughly corrected validity of knowing about the germinal things of the world, the things that are always still unfinished. There is no conceivable way for this latter faith to come into conflict with knowledge, but neither is it superfluous alongside knowledge. What it expresses, in substance, is that the essentials have not yet been visibly poured out. Since the best is still pending, it must be trusted if it is to succeed.

Das Prinzip Hoffnung, pp. 1399 ff. tr. “Man's Increasing Entry into Religious Mystery,” in Man on His Own, pp. 203–204

Earlier, I suggested that though economically the world now functions as one unit system to an extent without historical precedent, this means not a homogenization of interests but a sharpening of contradiction. I would further suggest that, just as 19th century insights come to fuller social development in the 20th century (temporal dimension of single world system) so perhaps artistic and theoretical manifestations which may be understood by writers in Europe may, for historical reasons, find a fuller positive expression in Third World Writing. (Spatial dimension of single world system.) That a writer has been formally trained in European traditions need not mean that her or his use of European languages and genres cannot express a Third World reality. So Harris writes.


  1. Quoted in Man on His Own, p. 12.

Jean-Pierre Durix (essay date winter 1984)

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SOURCE: Durix, Jean-Pierre. “The Visionary Art of Wilson Harris.” World Literature Today 58, no. 1 (winter 1984): 19–23.

[In the following essay, Durix provides an overview of major themes in Harris's novels, concluding that his art is “a deep exploration of the paradoxes of vision, for which a new approach must constantly be invented.”]

When Wilson Harris published Palace of the Peacock, his first and best-known novel, in 1960,1 the Times Literary Supplement immediately perceived the originality and imaginative power of this Drunken Boat in prose.2 The creative evolution of the author since that date has led many critics to consider him a major contemporary writer worthy of the Nobel Prize.3

Wilson Harris was born in 1921 in New Amsterdam, in what was then British Guiana. Educated in Georgetown, he took part in the artistic movements which accompanied the postwar awakening in many colonial territories. His first poems and stories were published in Kyk-over-al, a local literary magazine. Strangely enough, he started his career as a government surveyor in the interior, mapping the virgin forest and studying the variations in the rivers. He soon led several scientific expeditions into the bush, where he spent a considerable part of his time. This contact with primeval nature was to leave a decisive mark on his sensitivity. Many of the early novels—including Palace of the Peacock,The Whole Armour,The Secret Ladder,Heartland,The Eye of the Scarecrow,The Waiting Room,Tumatumari and Ascent to Omai, all published between 1960 and 1970—as well as the “Amerindian stories” collected in The Sleepers of Roraima (1970) and The Age of the Rainmakers (1971), were partly or totally situated in the jungle of Guyana. The wilderness, though of a different kind, appeared in several later novels: Black Marsden (1972), mostly rooted in Scotland, includes a “journey to Namless” [sic], a strange land where the characters lose their identities and are deprived of familiar landmarks. In Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness (1977) an area of Holland Park in London takes on similar attributes. These privileged locations are credible, actual spots as well as landscapes of the mind. The writing frequently oscillates between the two poles, though the second becomes uppermost from The Eye of the Scarecrow (1965) on.

The publication of Harris's first novel coincided with his move to Britain at the end of the fifties. At that time many major Caribbean writers like George Lamming (see WLT 57:1, pp. 38–43) and Samuel Selvon had come to Britain, mostly because it was very difficult for a writer to live and publish in countries where there were few outlets for their production. V. S. Naipaul's contributions to the BBC program “Caribbean Voices” was an indication of the rising interest in West Indian artists. Some of the writers who came to the metropolis at that time later moved back home or, like Selvon, settled first in Britain, then later in Canada. Harris remained in London and married a Scottish writer. Apart from his work as a novelist, he has spent much time lecturing at different universities (Aarhus, Texas, Yale), and in this activity he has shown an interest in literary criticism and theoretical considerations about the nature of creation.4

Many of Harris's novels are journeys into the interior either in a traditional or in a metaphoric sense. In Palace of the Peacock the planter Donne, the narrator (his brother) and a crew of men representative of all the different ethnic groups of Guyana set off on a boat to look for “the Folk,” a group of Amerindians whom the landlord needs for his farm. They take with them an old Amerindian woman, Mariella, who acts as their guide and translator on the voyage up the rapids and treacherous waters of the bush. She soon appears as a key figure and a representative of the archetypal Guyanese woman: according to the author, in a pioneering land females are usually abused and exploited. Mariella is no exception. Yet, as the expedition progresses, she disappears, leaving the men without a mediator in a region where their language has become incomprehensible. The muse has failed them and they must continue alone toward their goal, which, surprisingly enough, is called the Mission of Mariella. Petra, another Amerindian woman, plays a central part in Heartland. She is pregnant with a child she has probably conceived with someone from outside her ethnic group, and this transgression leads to her exclusion from the tribe. Stevenson, the young protagonist from the coast, helps her with the birth of the baby but fails to keep the mother and child for himself. As in Palace of the Peacock, the muse guides the activity of the protagonist, who cannot take possession of her, however. Harris's Dantesque journeys into the underworld lead to the discovery that Beatrice cannot be “conscripted,” to use the author's term.

The journey undertaken by the characters often uncovers historical levels which have remained hidden: thus, in The Secret Ladder, Fenwick, the government surveyor who maps the Canje River in preparation for possible hydrological regulation, is suddenly confronted with a group of descendants from the Africans who rebelled against slavery and reconstituted free communities in the jungle. These people have settled on lands considered worthless by the government, which plans to flood them. The Africans, led by Poseidon the black water god, clash with the surveyors. Fenwick, the chief of the survey party and also the novel's protagonist, first accepts the harsh methods favored by Jordan, his ruthless deputy. Then gradually, as he learns more about these Africans, he works toward a friendlier relationship with them, considering them legatees of the same historical heritage. In the Amerindian stories Harris seeks meaning through the relationship of violence and oppression, which was characteristic of the peoples of Guiana (the Arawaks were conquered by the Caribs, who were in turn defeated by the Europeans). At first sight the Caribbean past might appear as a long chain of pointless tyranny. This is certainly one of the conclusions drawn by such writers as V. S. Naipaul (see WLT 57:2, pp. 223–27). Harris refuses to remain at such a pessimistic stage. He attempts to reactivate the basic unifying force which he sees at work, despite—and, paradoxically, through—the rule of terror; the flute which the Caribs used to fashion out of the bones of the enemies whom they ritually ate becomes the catalyst of transfiguration. The music arising out of the instrument witnesses to a hidden beauty and harmony which has manifested itself through the very act of cruelty.

All of Harris's major characters experience some form of destruction, either of themselves or of their prejudices. This necessary prelude to regeneration means that the novels center on the exposure of different forms of oppression or self-oppression. An Indian usurer in The Far Journey of Oudin (1961) thinks he can possess his servant and the servant's offspring. Yet this proves to be a false hope, and he too must suffer deprivation. In a land where politics too often takes the form of racial enmity, Harris's purpose is not to exacerbate long-entrenched rivalries. On the contrary, his writing aims at finding a more imaginative—and therefore, in his opinion, a more authentic—form of community. But this cannot be achieved easily. A lot of suffering may be necessary before less antagonistic feelings can reign.

In his essays Harris has reflected on the necessity for a new kind of art. He deplores the prevalence of the “novel of persuasion.”

The novel of persuasion rests on grounds of apparent common sense: a certain ‘selection’ is made by the writer, the selection of items, manners, uniform conversation, historical situations, etc, all lending themselves to build and present an individual span of life which yields self-conscious and fashionable judgements, self-conscious and fashionable moralities.5

In Harris's opinion this only leads to shallow characters and situations. He favors a “concept of language … which continuously transforms inner and outer formal categories of experience” (TWS, 32). The art of the author is characterized by a “logic of potent explosive images.” In this context the despair and nihilism of certain absurdist writers is perceived as the result of a failure to see in truly visionary terms. The power of the writer is thus concentrated on exploding structures—characters, ideas, images, traditional concepts of time and space—which are perceived as static and therefore tyrannical. Thus the novel progresses in depth rather than along a more conventional diegetic line. In this Harris follows the example of visionary writers like Dante. Palace of the Peacock, for instance, has been interpreted as a descent into hell. While adopting the same theme as the Florentine poet, Harris roots his novel in the situation of contemporary South America. He manages to be truly universal because he is deeply involved in the local environment.

The problem of vision is central to most of Harris's works. At the end of Palace of the Peacock most members of the crew have died. Donne and the survivors see their progression barred by a cliff with a waterfall, and the leader of the party begins his ascent. Suddenly he discovers a window in the rock face through which he views a series of tableaux: first a Joseph-like carpenter appears, then a woman and a child figure. These visions are physically very close to Donne and yet radically unreachable. The openings only enable him to glance at these images of creation, which actually alter his perception of the world but which he can in no way control or influence. The modifications within him are profound: “He knew the chisel and the saw in the room had touched him and done something in the wind and the sun to make him anew” (132). Real vision has nothing to do with one's material eyes. This is clearly shown at the beginning of Palace of the Peacock, when the narrator declares: “I dreamt I awoke with one dead seeing eye and one living closed eye” (13–14). The eye that believes it sees is in fact blind, whereas the “dead” one actually sees. Paradoxical phrases of this sort constitute one of the bases of Harris's system of thinking. In this he is close to the style of such mystics as the anonymous medieval author of The Cloud of Unknowing and Nicholas of Cusa. Yet he cannot be associated with any particular faith: his concern is not so much with finding the nature of God as with discovering true creation beyond the obstacle of appearances.

In his recent fiction Harris becomes more and more interested in the novel as a form of art akin to painting.6 In Da Silva da Silva and The Tree of the Sun (1978) much of the plot arises out of a picture which Da Silva, the protagonist, is painting in his studio. The artist is created by his work as much as he creates it. The novel brings to light a subtle sort of mutuality which enables the characters to reach unsuspected dimensions and discover hidden layers of history. This passion for visual effects also leads Harris to experiment with graphic representations inserted in his texts. This starts in The Waiting Room but becomes even more noticeable in Ascent to Omai with a series of eight concentric circles around a point called “Stone/Epitaph One” (90). Each circle is given the name of one of the major metaphors of the novel (Madonna, Baboon, Raven, Parrot, Iron Mask, Rose, Whale, Petticoat). The graph illustrates Harris's particular use of language. All-important but separate images are brought into forced contact, thus engendering new forms and meanings, which symbolically exemplifies Harris's general theory of art as an attempt to overcome fixed polarities. The work of the writer causes a shock similar to the fall of a stone in a pool. The energy fans outward and then inward again when it has rebounded on the edges. The elements—here the different ripples—are animated by a current which causes them to react to each other and to be transformed by the different collisions. Harris suggests that images can be given one-sided equivalents only on a superficial level. With his bold couplings of apparently disparate units he suggests that one can reactivate seemingly sterile representations.

The philosophy which forms the background of Harris's literary practice is contained essentially in his more theoretical works.7 But the author does not hesitate to include some of his reflections in his novels. Some commentators have found fault with this characteristic, yet it is a manifestation of the artist's desire to break down the barriers between genres. Thus fiction, philosophy and poetry can meet in one single revolutionary medium. The clearest expression of the author's philosophy of language can be found in The Eye of the Scarecrow, where the narrator writes a letter/manifesto to L——, his friend and alter ego.

Language is one's medium of the vision of consciousness. … [It] alone can express … the sheer—the ultimate “silent” and “immaterial” complexity of arousal … the original grain or grains of language cannot be trapped or proven. It is the sheer mystery—the impossibility of trapping its own grain—on which poetry lives and thrives. And this is the stuff of one's essential understanding of the reality of the original Word, the Well of Silence. Which is concerned with a genuine sourcelessness, a fluid logic of images.


The artist is interested in the unreachable origin of man's ability to produce meaning and images. According to this assertion, one remains forever cut off from the unifying principle. The only way to approach a more genuine use of language is to attempt a “fluidity” of form and evocations.

The reflection on artistic creation becomes most intricately linked with graphic representations in “Arawak Horizon,” Harris's most complex and experimental story (included in The Age of the Rainmakers): the narrator goes back to a sort of inchoate universe which has suffered apparently total destruction.

I dreamt I crossed the Arawak horizon at a point on the arch of space known as the mind of the skeleton where a giant sculpture rose out of ruined magma into skyscraper day and night. Once upon a time it had been a total fire that could not be domesticated or swung away into the heavens like a great door or sun in space and it locked all men out (tyranny of insulation) or in (as factor of extinction). Yet the key to that door fell into my hands long afterwards and I began to re-trace the undreamt-of steps of the prisoner of life through the Arawak sun.


Such an elliptical and poetically dense passage would require a longer explanation. Yet it shows how, for Harris, genesis arises out of the cinders or skeleton of a tyrannical mode of existence, represented here by the “total fire” and the closed door. The imagination is an ability to perceive traces of life and freedom through this apparent sterility. Here a chain of numbers unfolding from zero to nine and engendering one another exemplifies graphically the metamorphosis of authentic vision. Each number, turned in different directions, also gives birth to images evoking Harris's major metaphoric networks (zero becomes a key when a stem is added to the bottom, a zero within another zero is a circle within a circle, a rainbow within a rainbow, et cetera). Shapes and words communicate in order to create a very personal and cosmic interpretation of old Amerindian myths.

Harris's conception of fiction also means a particular organization of characters: in Palace of the Peacock the crew parallels a former crew which disappeared in the rapids. This duality suggests a twofold reality split by the separation between life and death, light and darkness, clarity and mystery. This type of distinction is perceptible at most levels of Harris's art. The opposition of echoing characters is evidenced by the Donne/narrator duo. They are brothers, Donne being described as the ruthless one while the narrator appears weak, oversensitive and imaginative. As the novel progresses, Donne acquires more and more of the qualities inherent in his brother, and he is the one who achieves vision first in his ascent of the rock face. In The Eye of the Scarecrow the narrator and L—— become complementary and even interchangeable at times until it is impossible to decide who is responsible for a particular act. This process is accompanied by a splitting within the character himself. After a nightmare journey with L—— to the heart of the bush, the narrator declares, “I saw myself moving away from myself within a dimension over which I appeared to have little control” (79). This disturbing, schizoid vision is carried one step further in The Angel at the Gate, where the narrator supposedly edits a book of automatic writing by one Mary Stella Holiday. In the “notes” which the “editor” arranges, the protagonist is split between Mary and Stella, who live separate existences while sharing the same house. This leads to an odd impression of familiarity and strangeness at the same time as the different levels of narration run together or as one imperceptibly merges into the other.

Here again, the author's purpose is to expose what he sees as the apparent simplicity of traditional characterization. Applying a biblical phrase to the process of vision, Harris reminds the reader that “In my Father's house are many mansions.”8 One level of perception hides many others, and no single one must be privileged. Art consists in reactivating the dynamic pattern that links all these elements. For Harris, polarities have to be exposed before a more genuine relationship can exist. In the novels, when one character exploits another, the narration immediately shows him to be exploiting himself; in his brutal action he is actually suppressing in himself more positive faculties. In Harris's novels, vision starts with a self-reflexive process which brings to light the futility of tyranny. The author formalizes this in his creation of a third term called “It” in The Eye of the Scarecrow: “It was clothing him with the necessity of acknowledging the cloak of otherness. … It was a strange company—TWO and IT—though who It was no one could say: a crumbling scarecrow perhaps, the key to … ?” (74–75). The “It” is the element which prevents easy identifications, which always reminds the character that he cannot be satisfied with a static vision of himself. The radical otherness of reality is one of Harris's major themes. Creative writing becomes a constant revisionary process in which the units of meaning lose their stability in order to acquire more fluidity.

A similar process takes place at the level of narration: on the surface, one might think that Harris is using a traditional third-person omniscient narrator. Yet, when one looks closer, one realizes that the “omniscience” of certain assertions is counterbalanced by constant self-doubting. Harris also frequently resorts to the inclusion of diaries, especially in The Waiting Room,Companions of the Day and Night (1975) and The Angel at the Gate. This form renews one of the original genres which gave birth to the novel. Harris carefully marks—usually in a preface—the distance between the “editor” of the diaries or papers collected and the content of these papers. The diarist's work is relayed by another person, and the novel unfolds in the mutual relationship between these two poles. Thus one-sided interpretation becomes impossible. The end of the work does not bring a definite conclusion. The seeds of creation have been sown, but the actual development remains open. Harris refuses to provide a fictional utopia, a perfect construction which he sees as absolutely frozen and sterile. In The Angel at the Gate the characters seek some kind of paradise on earth, following the examples of Marx, Proudhon, Gandhi and others. Yet Harris's conception appears most definitively in “Paradise Park,” named for the park to which Mary takes little John. The place is the scene of vandalism and bird slaughtering by gangs of youths. When a woman and her boyfriend approach Mary and her charge, John starts to wave scissors, the very weapon used by the louts.

He waved his scissors at her and at a flamingo. The flamingo's bitten neck darted across the woman's body into the brain of the serpent. Sliced evolutionary wings grew afresh on the other side of the woman's thighs into the apparition of a swan. Then wings enveloped the scene to disclose a rim of black under a scarlet ribbon of feathers.


This passage suggests that no one is innocent in the destructive process which takes place everywhere. Yet the author's imagination turns this trial into a creative metamorphosis with the woman becoming half-human and half-swan, an evocation of the myth of Leda and the swan. The scene exemplifies an assertion which might well be taken as Harris's own opinion: “In the greatest flowering danger lies the greatest prize of artistic wisdom” (124). For the author, art is not a question of mastery. It is a deep exploration of the paradoxes of vision, for which a new approach must constantly be invented. This accounts for the tremendous variety of moods, characters, images and stylistic techniques used by the novelist, whose ability to enchant and bewilder the reader remains undiminished.


  1. Wilson Harris, Palace of the Peacock, London, Faber & Faber, 1960. Harris's other books of fiction, all published by Faber & Faber, are: The Far Journey of Oudin, 1961; The Whole Armour, 1962; The Secret Ladder, 1963; Heartland, 1964; The Eye of the Scarecrow, 1965; The Waiting Room, 1967; Tumatumari, 1968; Ascent to Omai, 1970; The Sleepers of Roraima, 1970; The Age of the Rainmakers, 1971; Black Marsden, 1972; Companions of the Day and Night, 1975; Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness and Genesis of the Clowns, 1977; The Tree of the Sun, 1978; The Angel at the Gate, 1982. Eternity to Season, Harris's only available volume of poetry, was privately printed in Guyana in 1954 and was republished in 1978 by New Beacon Books of London.

  2. “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.” TLS, 30:8 (1960), p. 625.

  3. Wilson Harris has been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize.

  4. Harris's main collections of essays are: Tradition, the Writer and Society, London, New Beacon, 1967; Explorations, Aarhus (Denmark), Dangaroo, 1981; The Womb of Space, Westport, Ct., Greenwood, 1983.

  5. Harris, Tradition, the Writer and Society, p. 29; subsequent references abbreviated as TWS.

  6. See Hena Maes-Jelinek's excellent article, “Inimitable Painting,” Ariel, 8 (July 1977), pp. 63–80.

  7. Most of these essays are collected in the three collections cited in note 4.

  8. The verse from John 14:2 is quoted in The Eye of the Scarecrow, pp. 31, 96.

Michael Thorpe (review date winter 1984)

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SOURCE: Thorpe, Michael. Review of The Angel at the Gate, by Wilson Harris. World Literature Today 58, no. 1 (winter 1984): 152.

[In the following negative review, Thorpe argues that The Angel at the Gate is only accessible to “seasoned” readers accustomed to Harris's “opaque” narrative style.]

Wilson Harris's novels are psychical “expeditions,” negotiable only by seasoned voyagers attuned to spatial narrative woven of incremental correspondences and image clusters, the splitting and doubling of character and action (“mutualities”), motifs of vision, transfiguration, flight and ascent, parallel inner and outer universes, dreams of paradisiacal wholeness, interspersed with key terms in the author's metaphysics. This is itself a quest for a sacred pattern or “law of love,” an ever-present “wall” of possibility—“the conversion of casualty that exists in each moment” (echoing Eliot), dissolving seeming fixities of race, personality, inheritance, time and history.

The “automatic narrative” of The Angel at the Gate is explicitly linked with Yeats's A Vision. The author is Yeats to his elect medium, Mary Stella Holiday, dual woman and privileged seer; he is also creator of the hierophantic Father Joseph Marsden (returned from an earlier novel), whose risky shamanistic art (Eliade is epigraphically invoked) constructs a “cross-cultural human-space.” Marsden is the dying captain of Mary's “hypnotic expedition through regions and riddles of spirit”—whether through contemporary London, both concretely evoked and translated into mystical significance, or ancestral “history.” Only in priestlike art can human history, discrete and discontinuous, become one: “To be whole was to endure … the traffic of many souls, in ceaseless angelic/demonic paradox that cures, yet never cures wholly.” Is consciousness then all, or will it—in Eliot's words—“fructify in the lives of others”?

The reader's imaginative reach is extended and excited, yet—as increasingly in Harris's recent fiction (see this issue, pp. 19–23)—the novel's meaning is repeatedly glossed by authorial interpretation. The uninitiated reader may become discouraged, wrestling with opaque ideas attached to tantalizing shadows of what he seeks in fiction: engagement with deeply apprehended lives and moving action. The more accustomed expeditioner may feel that Harris is overanxious to turn narrative and meaning inside out.

Jean-Pierre Durix (essay date summer 1984)

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SOURCE: Durix, Jean-Pierre. “Through Tension to Metamorphosis: The Angel at the Gate by Wilson Harris.” World Literature Written in English 24, no. 1 (summer 1984): 120–27.

[In the following essay, Durix discusses the automatic writing and multi-layered narrative construction in The Angel at the Gate, describing the narrative as “a dream journey.”]

The Angel at the Gate by Wilson Harris starts with a liminary note signed “W. H.” explaining that the plot of the novel is a transcription of Mary Stella Holiday's automatic writing, which took place while she was undergoing treatment and receiving guidance from Father Joseph Marsden, a priest-cum-hypnotist living at Angel Inn, an old house in London. The narrative arises out of Mary's malaise and her desire to situate herself in relation to others. This specific form, a narrative within a work of fiction, is not new in Harris' corpus: he has used this model in The Eye of the Scarecrow,The Waiting Room and Companions of the Day and Night. However, here the multi-layered construction reaches a new stage with the use of automatic writing and the role such a technique can have in the development of imaginative powers.

The reader is led along two strands of narrative. On the first level, Mary Stella is merely the author of the notes which form the framework of the book. On a second plane, that of the automatic writing, she is split into two personae: Mary, Marsden's secretary and patient, lives with her brother Sebastian, an unemployed drug addict. Stella, his wife, has to be taken into the emergency ward after swallowing a massive quantity of Valium. They have a small son, John, who plays a very important part in the other characters' evolution. As the narrative at times hovers on the threshold between the first and the second levels, relationships between characters become less clear. At the end of chapter five, Father Marsden is nearly crushed by a bale falling from a lorry in the street. His accident and “little death” is a focal point where Khublall, a Hindu, and his friend Jackson, a Jamaican, actively join the plot. Through Mack, Stella's father, they are linked with the main family. This deepening of personal links parallels other discoveries made concerning the past history of the Angel Inn, where Marsden's eighteenth-century ancestor sold Mary's black ancestor, a slave, in his auction room. The novel weaves many networks of association around Marsden which lead to the final acknowledgement that one must endure “the traffic of many souls.”

The name “Marsden” was used for a major character in Black Marsden, a novel situated in Scotland. There the character appears as a “clown or conjurer or hypnotist” (p. 12). His action brings positive as well as negative results to Goodrich, the narrator-protagonist. Where Black Marsden tends to sponge, Father Marsden helps to liberate people from “possession.” The setting is obviously the Kensington-Shepherd's Bush area of London, which can be identified with many actual place names. Yet Harris combines familiarity and disorientation through his introduction of such imaginary locales as Paradise Park and Planet Bale, a strange celestial body which materializes from the nearly fatal bale. Paradise Park evokes Holland Park in Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness. Yet it arises more from artistic work than from reality. The park becomes charged with historical and archetypal connotations. It is the place where metamorphosis reaches a climax.

The names of the other characters also play on multiple layers of evocation. The Joseph and Mary couple have been present in Harris' novels since Palace of the Peacock. The eternally abused woman and miraculously creative muse of the first volume of the Guiana Quartet has now become a modern visionary character. Joseph Marsden contributes only indirectly to the well-being of the “miraculous child” raised by Mary, a child conceived in circumstances almost as miraculous as those surrounding the conception of the son of God. John is a kind of cuckoo who grows up in a stranger's nest.

Harris strategy of referential anchoring and disorientation seems to provide all the keys for “understanding” the novel in his liminary note. If we follow the arguments developed by “W. H.,” the narration concerns a person whose name has been modified “to avoid embarrassment” (p. 7). Yet much of the plot forces readers to question all presuppositions which might chain them to verisimilitude. Harris' fiction weaves unobtrusively in and out of the basic plot, which becomes inextricably linked with the world of dreams. In the author's opinion, one cannot be content with the material surface of things. It is necessary to integrate many other layers of perception and memory without which one's idea of reality remains static and sterile.

Harris' writing sets out to explore meaning, not so much as a clearly definable object but as a basic skeleton structure which accounts for the profound unity of the world. Only the imagination is free enough to operate the radical stripping off of appearances which forms a necessary prelude to the enterprise. In his radical conception of fiction, Harris cannot be content with traditional characters whose features remain constant throughout the plot. In works such as The Eye of the Scarecrow, his characters mirror one another and form complementary halves. Yet, in The Angel at the Gate, Mary Stella appears whole in the first level of narration and separated into Mary on one hand and Stella on the other when we reach the story proper. In key transitional passages, characteristics belonging to the two worlds overlap, causing uncertainty for the reader. Far from being a weakness in the novel, this feature strips down the surface of commonly accepted references in order to pave the way for the imagination.

The novel seeks a similar process of reassurance and disorientation in the chronological references. The narrator provides accurate dates relating the plot to contemporary events: he indicates that the episodes described take place between November 1980 and June 1981. This period approximately covers the actual writing work for The Angel at the Gate, which reinforces the value of this book as metafiction. The narrator mentions President Reagan, fires in a dance hall in Dublin, in a London house where several young West Indians die and in a hotel in Las Vegas. We also find a reference to the famine in Ethiopia and the threat of a Russian invasion of Poland. Yet together with these events, which clearly belong to the contemporary period, the novel mentions the Proudhon utopia in the Jura mountains, which Mary contemplates joining. This jump in time, if we judge by ordinary criteria, causes a destructuring effect. Similarly, when Marsden's auctioneer ancestor appears in the narration, the reader is not surprised to see an eighteenth-century account book written in the style and spelling of the period. Yet when the list starts again a few pages later with “For getting poore Van Gogh's yellow chaire out of ye Market 25p” (p. 22), the conventions of verisimilitude are infringed upon once again. The half-comic, half-anguishing technique is familiar, but Harris has rarely used it so effectively. Beyond the first moment of surprise, we realize that he is emphasizing a new conception of time which privileges echoes and synchronicity rather than a mechanical sequence of separate events. The different episodes linked throughout the centuries all have to do with catastrophes and traumas which must be envisaged in their positive aspects for, in Harris' world, destruction usually heralds a new and deeper possibility of construction. Nature dies in order to be reborn in the following spring—hence the period between November and June, almost the time of gestation. The conventions of the novel are destroyed so that new and more authentic conventions may emerge. Such a process of renewal is only seen in its starting stages, for every conceptual edifice threatens to become static and needs to be stripped of its sterilizing aspects. So the narration must remain a work in progress; it never reaches a definite conclusion.

The experience of death precedes a new birth. Marsden dies at the precise moment when life can reappear on a more authentic basis. The old man is the origin of the material used by “W. H.” in his fiction. When he dies, the novel can come to life in an autonomous form. It can use the notes taken by Marsden and by Mary but need not follow them slavishly. This freedom of creation arises out of the destruction of the materialistic constraints which might have been imposed by the actual protagonists of the events incorporated into the plot. The imagination, for Harris, is a capacity for reaching beyond the idolatry of reality. It is a synthesizing and paradoxical force which exists in a frontier area. In The Eye of the Scarecrow, the narrator talks of the “borderline … between an Imagination capable of reconciling unequal forms present and past and an Imagination empty of self-determined forms to come …” (p. 98). It attempts to join antagonistic elements while at the same time endeavouring to be free of any preconceptions.

The imagination is more a power of exploration than of possession. It helps the reader to free himself from any desire to freeze reality. Some characters tend to use others as commodities: in a dream, Sebastian sees Mary and Stella in the shape of a butterfly which brushes past his lips, offering its beauty to be enjoyed and gulped down like food. The novel reacts against this cat-and-mouse game in which one character simply chases and devours another—there is a scene where a cat literally hunts down a mouse in Jackson's garden. For Harris, language cannot set out to master reality. It can only link different elements which would otherwise remain separate or antagonistic.

Instead of aiming at possession of some form of static meaning, Harris' writing brings together incompatible terms and causes unexpected collisions. The result is often flashes of temporary illumination which open new vistas in an apparently blocked situation. One of the author's favourite devices in The Angel at the Gate is to create characters out of a song which Stella has favoured since her childhood. Mack the Knife, Sukey Tawdrey, Jenny Diver and Lucy Brown are not only names in a famous melody sung by Louis Armstrong and inspired by John Gay's Beggar's Opera and Bertolt Brech's Dreigroschenoper. A whole personal history is created from a projection of the characters' predicaments on the themes of “Mack the Knife.” From the meeting of these two fields of evocations arises a new plot which at times seems part of the two sources and yet appears radically different. Mack is an expert in murder, swindles and is a lady-killer (in more than one sense). He also uses other people instead of attempting more fruitful relationships with them. His attitude compares with the conquistadores or colonial owners described in the Guiana Quartet.

In Harris' fiction, words often create reality: Planet Bale arises out of the bale which falls from a lorry and nearly crushes Marsden. The accident introduces the old priest—and those who happen to witness the event—to a novel universe, to a different body of perception. With Harris, genuine creation is triggered by a shock which forces the characters to revise their preconceptions. The event inaugurates a series of echoing images, the meteoric strike, the expedition to another world and the crushing of the body of an old man, who is reduced to an empty vessel out of which can emerge other creations of the mind. The distance between Planet Bale and the pavement on which Marsden is lying unconscious makes a sense of perspective and enables the viewer to re-examine his priorities in order to privilege “qualitative mystery” rather than “quantity-for-the-sake-of-quantity” (p. 88). It is the distance brought about by the creative imagination.

The plot includes other traumatic events which seem shocking and undesirable yet which cause beneficial effects: when a man exposes himself in front of Stella after waking her up with his repeated knocks on the door, the woman suddenly discovers her son John about to swallow a quantity of Valium which she has left lying on the table. Thus, horror and bestiality eventually open on the saving of the child's life. The sex maniac belongs to the series of Anancy-like figures which abound in Harris' fiction. This trickster indirectly turns a dangerous situation into a happy event. In Harris' fiction, trickster figures usually contribute to the unblocking of representations. Such images as turning wheels or material being woven relate to the positive activity of such characters. Mother Diver has a shawl which evokes the threading or the unravelling of truth. Wheels appear as parts of chariots or of motor cars. Anancy, the young boy who surprises Mary when he appears unexpectedly in the Angel Inn to read Sir Thomas More's Utopia, moves as quick as lightning despite his bandaged foot. The narration draws a parallel yet emphasizes the difference between him and Marsden:

Anancy returned as sculptured chariot of god (with one wheel that ran round and round as if it were whole, yet served in envisioning a broken revolution to signify the moral fate of all human design).

(p. 29)

This creature is composed of a mixture of apparent skill and wholeness on the one hand and of imperfection on the other. His creative possibilities lie in the interaction between his surface completeness and the deep flaw in his possibilities. The first element enables him to work wonders while the second prevents him from exerting tyrannical powers. Marsden causes surprising effects but not so much with his actual physical abilities. On the contrary, he acts more as a catalyst. He has learned to free himself from “the perversities of affection” (p. 30). He thus represents life reduced to its minimal stage, a body “whittled or sliced by fate … into a knobbed stick” (pp. 29–30). The miraculous Joseph, who appears with his car to help reunite Mary and Stella when Stella comes out of hospital, strangely echoes Joseph Marsden while being an Anancy-like figure, too. Many characters in this novel seem to have “angelic” powers. By this Harris seems to indicate people who can reach or help other people to a higher degree of relationship with others: Marsden, Anancy, Khublall, Jackson and Wheeler all help, in different ways, the realization of this necessary revision of premises. They are creatures of the “threshold” of the “gate” between the material world which many take for granted and another world which only the creative imagination can explore.

The novel is written on the threshold of a radically new form of perception. The language is fertilized in this intermediary zone where familiar landmarks become blurred and melt into others. Here, Harris' fiction progresses from one partial representation to another using the creative drive of rich images. The narrative can be compared to the automatic writing practised by W. B. Yeats's wife and described in A Vision, a volume which Mary finds on Marsden's desk. The web of the novel is made up of “an elaborate system of actively related opposites” (p. 107). Harris' imagination has provided him with “metaphors for poetry” (p. 107) out of which the different strands of the story emerge by processes of classical progression as well as by association or plays on the meaning of words. Harris never takes up an image in isolation to signify one single layer of meaning; rather, images are confronted or they echo one another in series which drift out of the main thread, usually to return modified and enriched by the collisions of sounds and evocations. The tension arising from the confrontation of two terms causes the emergence of a third, possibly less static one which revitalizes the process of discovery. For Harris, words are less important in their meaning than in their potential for creative metamorphosis. The enterprise is fraught with the danger the author associates with love. The narrator of The Angel at the Gate speaks of creating “through the mystery of temptation.” Temptation in itself is a danger because it can lead to the exploitation of the object of one's love. Yet “in the greatest flowering danger lies the greatest prize of artistic wisdom” (p. 124)

In this work of passion, Harris' characters are attracted by utopias which set out to bring ready-made solutions to problems. In this novel, Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi and Pierre Proudhon are illustrations of ideological systems which some people consider providential. For Harris, any theory which becomes a self-sufficient system increases polarizations and paves the way for cruelty and tyranny. He criticizes the so-called revolutionaries who disguise old-fashioned methods of reasoning into apparently new solutions. In The Angel at the Gate, the narrator provides the example of Leo Tolstoy who abandons his family in order to found an “ideal” community and whose mysticism soon turns into authoritarianism. Sebastian's artificial drug paradise leads only to irresponsibility and violence. Human paradises are threatened, as we see with Paradise Park, where little John, in a dreamlike version of the Leda myth flashes his scissors out of his pram and cuts in all directions, causing metamorphoses in Sukey Tawdrey:

The flamingo's bitten neck darted across the woman's body into the brain of the serpent. Sliced evolutionary wings grew afresh on the other side of the woman's thighs into the apparition of a swan. Then wings enveloped the scene to disclose a rim of black under a scarlet ribbon of feathers.

(p. 70)

But these dangers must be faced and turned into moments of revelation. Such scenes in Harris' novels usually show the wholeness of characters and objects broken down. Each becomes fragmented yet enriched with elements belonging to others. Thus, a mutual dialogue is initiated thanks to the power of the imagination. This activity involves a reassessment of one's relation to history. Art becomes an act of memory. The characters' isolation is broken by their discovery of a subtle evolutionary web which they have ignored hitherto. The narrator expresses this using a series of metaphors:

Father Marsden had said that if one could ascend a rainbow of tears one would converse with the souls of the living and the dead. It was on that rainbow-bridge that a butterfly of existence flew. On each wing were intricate and multiple records of the deeds of many lives shimmering and shifting to reflect anew each individual history or individual body.

(p. 17)

The perception of the artist is similar to these shimmering and never stable images which form on the wings of a butterfly. All are separate yet related through the overall pattern. Each is fragile and can be possessed by a passing predator. Yet once the wings are shattered, nothing of the original richness endures. The revelation lies in the moment of metamorphosis. Objects and people can discover profound relationships with each other if only they refrain from becoming “furies.”

The process of narration bears witness to the same paradoxes: the voice which interprets the plot and comments on the events seeks to find abstract formulations. It, too, is tempted by the “enchantment with the womb” (p. 124), by a desire to reach truth and immobilize it. Through this measure of stability meaning can arise and the ideas can be communicated on a basis which the narrator and the readers have in common. Yet this tendency cannot be separated from a realization that the true imagination always starts to break limits and destroy walls. The reader must enter the complex conceptual world of the author and thus accept the limitation of his freedom of interpretation. But this constraining aspect cannot be separated from the author's genuine concern for open structures. The text of the novel imposes a pattern to pave the way for a radical questioning of all superficial patterns. Such tension between form and formlessness would not be bearable without Harris' profound belief in the inexhaustible powers of language to break any constraint. Stella tries to put words into Sebastian's mouth. Old Lucy in the last chapter wants Jackson to “talk” to his daughter, and by this she implies “to force an idea into the young girl's mind.” These remain perverse uses of language. The writing of this novel proves that one cannot possess someone's speech in the same way as one cannot take absolute possession of language. Language remains a riddle, a frustrating yet unique access to a deeper form of vision.

In the framework of Harris' fiction, The Angel at the Gate concentrates on the creative potential of catastrophes and people's apparent weaknesses. Instead of placing the emphasis on heroes of the traditional type, this novel examines the “angel” figures as catalysts of discovery. This novel is a dream journey, but not in the mode of an escapist enterprise since paradises always prove fraught with ambiguities. Compared with Harris' other works, it seems simpler in its use of language. Yet the writer steers a delicate course between the familiar and the disorientating. Memory plays a vital part in the origin of the characters, who are developed from semi-conscious fragments of history and from musical themes which enter into a dialogue with the written text. The Angel at the Gate is an important step in Harris' metafictional enterprise: in his use of automatic writing he explores a particularly fruitful field concerning the position of the novelist in relation to his material. The different voices that meet echo the paradox of revelation and radical otherness which remains at the core of the genuine imagination.


  1. The Angel at the Gate (London: Faber and Faber, 1982), p. 126. Further references are incorporated in the text.

Reinhard Sander (review date summer 1985)

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SOURCE: Sander, Reinhard. Review of The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination, by Wilson Harris. World Literature Today 59, no. 3 (summer 1985): 477.

[In the following positive review, Reinhard praises The Womb of Space as an attack on the traditional critical establishment.]

The Guyanese writer Wilson Harris is a major contemporary novelist and thinker (see WLT 58:1, pp. 19–23). In more than a dozen works of fiction, he has realized a new, original form of the novel that in almost all respects constitutes a radical departure from the conventional novel. In his two previous collections of critical essays, Tradition, the Writer and Society (1967) and Explorations (1981), he presents the reader with the vision of a new society which underlies his esthetic concepts, and with his notions about the function of the writer. His latest critical work, The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination, will again serve as “an indispensable guide to Harris's understanding of his own novels,” but it is much more than that. It is an attack on the traditional critical establishment, for which “literature is still constrained by regional and other conventional but suffocating categories.”

Utilizing a genuinely comparative approach, Harris juxtaposes and analyzes the work of two dozen writers from Europe, Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Australia and finds that on a cross-cultural level “each work complexly and peculiarly revises another and is inwardly revised in turn in profound context.” The writers he discusses include William Faulkner, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Ellison, Jean Toomer, Juan Rulfo, Jay Wright, Jean Rhys, Paule Marshall, Djuna Barnes, Patrick White, Aimé Césaire, Derek Walcott, Christopher Okigbo, Edward Brathwaite, Mervyn Peake, Emma Tennant, Claude Simon, Raja Rao, and Zulfikar Ghose. Each of these writers, Harris contends, has unknowingly (intuitively) been attempting to free himself or herself from the shackles of cultural homogeneity, and his or her work shows evidence of “cross-cultural capacity.” The goal in Harris's vision of a new world community is the awareness and practice of cultural heterogeneity, since homogeneity “as a cultural model, exercised by a ruling ethnic group, tends to become an organ of conquest and division because of imposed unity that actually subsists on the suppression of others.”

Reed Way Dasenbrock (review date spring 1986)

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SOURCE: Dasenbrock, Reed Way. Review of Carnival, by Wilson Harris. World Literature Today 60, no. 2 (spring 1986): 351.

[In the following review, Dasenbrock asserts that Carnival is “even denser and more abstract” than Harris's previous novels, and that it is “less a narrative than a metanarrative,” noting that death is a major theme of the novel.]

Wilson Harris (see WLT 58:1, pp. 19–23) has always operated at a very high level of abstraction, higher than any of his fellow West Indian novelists, higher perhaps than any other contemporary novelist in English. Even in his first novel, Palace of the Peacock (1960), the actual journey or quest upriver consistently gives way to more allegorical or dreamlike levels of narrative, so much so that any sorting out of the novel with an eye to “what actually happened” is utterly and deliberately impossible. Twenty-five years and many novels later in Harris's career, Carnival is even denser and more abstract, less a narrative than a metanarrative or commentary on a potential narrative. And whether one regards Harris's evolution as a rich and exciting development or a one-way trip down an abstractist cul-de-sac, there is no denying his unique vision or dedication to that vision.

There is an outline of a narrative in Carnival, about a character (a writer?) named Everyman Masters and his biographer Weyl, both of whom were born in the South American country of New Forest (Guyana) and migrated subsequently to London. One way of normalizing the book would be to say that it is the reflection—in conversation and thought—of these two men on some key moments in their lives. However, Carnival begins with Masters being stabbed to death, and the rest of the book is represented as being what Masters reveals to Weyl while dead. Death is perhaps the dominant motif of the novel, and the repeated series of violent deaths—usually by stabbing—that punctuate the novel help indicate its central theme. Carnival takes place at Easter time, and Carnival in Harris's presentation is a kind of rough equivalent of Easter that in its violence represents the original violent death of God better than the Christian celebration. Ours is an age of violence, and Harris presents violence as our ritual and Carnival as our ritual of rituals.

Carnival is therefore a book about what we have made of death. Appropriately, it is full of references to Dante, and the contrast between our world and Dante's ordered cosmology in which death has a place and a purpose seems to be part of Harris's point. We live in Frazer's world of hundreds of dying gods rather than a world in which one god died for us, and indeed Carnival with its myriad frames of reference resembles a bizarre redaction of The Golden Bough in less than two hundred pages. Thus, the density and the confusion of Harris's fiction in a sense are ultimately illustrative of his theme: we dwell in a world “void of sacrament” but full of “savage masquerade” of sacrament, and Harris presents us with the various kinds of masquerade by which we live. However, the novel's confusing representation of confusion does not make for easy reading, and for this reason, enthusiastic readers of Carnival will, I suspect, be a select few.

Wilson Harris and Stephen Slemon (interview date 28 April 1986)

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SOURCE: Harris, Wilson, and Stephen Slemon. “Interview with Wilson Harris.” Ariel 19, no. 3 (July 1988): 47–56.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on 28 April 1986, Harris discusses “post-colonial allegory,” particularly in respect to Carnival.]

[Slemon:] You have talked about how modern allegory enables new kinds of vision, and I'm interested in the question of post-colonial allegory, or the allegorising of Otherness. One aspect of the allegorical mode is that it automatically involves binocular vision or a kind of double vision, and binocular vision necessarily involves depth perception. In what way does the allegorical element in your writing contribute to this new vision you are trying to evoke?

[Harris:] The thing that activates my mind is how to conceive the reality of genuine change. I have never forsaken that even though I am not engaged in any political party and my politics tend to be not quite politics. But this press for genuine change remains deep-seated and fundamental in my imagination. That implies a transformative scale. What I discovered was that there is a persistent development, if that is the word, moving in the fiction I write, and to some extent it has to do with what I would call the absent body. For in my judgement, there can be no genuine authority, no mutual authority, without visualising the capacity of inner space to relate to motifs of landscape/sea-scape/sky-scape etc. (outer space) in such a way that a transformation begins to occur in an apparently incorrigible divide between “object” and “subject,” between toys and baubles of myth and a density of roots from which such toys or baubles (that encrust our civilisation until they become meaningless) have sprung. No wonder there is a denigration of myth, and myth tends to be equated with lies. The divide to which I refer, the denigration to which I refer, diminishes the intuitive imagination, it measures the person in things, it freezes the original life of the past into a series of museum figures. Modern allegory has its substance or pressure in live and vital, archetypal myth that erupts through absences-in-presences to validate the age-old yet paradoxically original imagination. Here lies in my view the reality of the modern. Modern, I feel, implies an ongoing and unceasing re-visionary and innovative strategy that has its roots in the deepest layers of the past that still address us. There is a mutual authority between absence and presence, between withinness and withoutness. You spoke of doubleness. One has to remember that in dealing with the post-colonial field, modern allegory seems to be pertinent when one begins to ask oneself questions to do with areas of tradition that have sunken away and apparently disappeared and vanished and yet that are still active at some level. It means that one has to make a distinction between activity as a kind of mechanical process and movement as something which is rooted in some faculty of the imagination, a combination of faculties in the imagination. The capacity in the imagination to make real what no longer appears to move or live. In other words there is a distinction then between frenetic, fiendish activity as it is pursued in the mechanical world and the kind of movement in which something is coming up that may assist us to alter our judgement of the obsessions that bind us. Those obsessions have to be fissured. When they are fissured it is obviously painful, but they may release a mood that I would call distance. And in that distance, the sensible body is extended, and intermissions to do with the absent and present body may then run closely together. This condition of withinness/withoutness may then become reasonably true—it can never be totally true—and when that happens one has to sense that there are genuine forces at work which I call intuitive forces. There are genuine intuitive forces at work that move within the imagination, and the form that seems to me closest to the verifying or validating of this is modern allegory. And even as I say allegory, I hesitate a little and wonder whether there isn't another term.

How does your notion of the sensible or absent body tie in with the project of allegory and your interest in the question of genuine change?

The absent body is rooted in an understanding of presence which lies beyond logical presence. The absent body understands something that the present body fails to understand, and yet the present body may be visited by the absent body and vice versa. It is this kind of cross-cultural visitation that seems to me to open the doorway into modern allegory, because in the first place it means there is a kind of mutual authority which has to do with guides, and the validity of inner guides. Those inner guides are true, they work within the re-visionary imagination. They navigate within the text of a fiction, they are intuitive, they are utterly real, they bring fruitful distances into an otherwise hollow humanity. There is also a sensation that this distance which one perceives is a kind of distance in which for the first time the sensible body sees the cup or vessel out there, the cup or vessel of gold or whatever, but it (that vessel) acquires new horizons, new distances within itself that may alter certain prepossessions by which the imagination was encrusted. Encrustation gives way to a different awareness of self, a new self-confessional density of the roots of self in all creatures. The sensible, dense body awakens to a complex web of temptations to which it has succumbed, of responsibilities and creativities it had eclipsed. It is imbued then with scales of interwoven capacities to weigh the nature of greed to which it has succumbed time and time again. Perhaps the roots of greed arch through patterns of one-sided command so to speak. To test or break that chain of one-sided command is to test or alter obsessional codes that are deeply planted in regimes and societies, deeply planted within ourselves, without ourselves. The mood of distance to which I refer is akin to the revisitation of creative conscience within a hollow humanity that the absent body entertains in conjunction with the present body. So you get a kind of remoteness or aversion to complacent hope. True hope may lie in the way one plumbs despair, plumbs a hollow humanity that invests in greed, and converts that hollowness into a new or unsuspected spatiality or wealth of perspective. That aversion is converted into creativity in that the thing out there that a culture seeks to seize addresses us in a totally different way. It is a question of how one breaks the obsession, an obsessional space, how one breaks with obsession in the heart of imagination. One can never wholly relinquish obsession (art has some if not all of its roots in obsession) but the quality of obsession may profoundly change.

Whether this is a revival of some theorem of allegory which has vanished I do not know. Francis Yates speaks of the difficulties of understanding allegory because the traditions that nourished Dante, Titian, and Shakespeare have largely disappeared. We know that there is a body of scholarship which has encrusted allegory with certain notions of museum artefact. How we discard such notions is part and parcel, I think, of the creativity of our age.

You have recently written about allegory in the New Left Review and have spoken about it in a talk you gave in Italy.1 I wonder whether this interest you now show in modern allegory suggests new ways of reading your fiction—in other words, is this a discovery on your part that a kind of allegorical presence has always been at work in your writing?

It is difficult to say in a purely intellectual way how I began to see aspects of my fiction as bearing upon modern allegory. Modern allegory is an assertion of the inner, the intuitive guide. It comes back to the question of “withinness” and “withoutness.” How do you evaluate that? Well, in a realistic fiction, you may have people who seem to be distinct and apart from each other. “A” proceeds on this path and “B” proceeds on that path. They appear to be separate. The realistic writer can conceal his prejudices and biases, and he can arrange and give a kind of congruence and balance to them. On the other hand, within modern allegory it is possible, I am sure, not to disguise the biases or terrors of hideousness of an authorial civilisation that runs hand in hand with various barbarisms that reside in the most cultivated personalities, in ourselves as much as others. The imagination accepts this burden as native to itself and suffers and endures in a wholly different way than is the case in “realism.” In that capacity to endure and suffer, the fiction changes, the frames which contain the content of the fiction genuinely change, though in outline those frames seem to remain identical. The whole problematic of change lies in the way apparently identical frames of landscape or whatever begin to secrete new inner space content. The ground within the frames begins to move, begins to shift, so that the foundation stones or the building blocks of a civilisation are seen quite differently—so differently that one opens up unsuspected corridors in space and time. The new inner space content in apparently identical frames of experience creates, I believe, a fiction which consumes its biases in some degree. The subversive strategy of modern allegory—as I feel and understand it—lies in the curious hollowing out, the curious excavation, that takes place within frames of identity until the new hollow secretes resources and potentials that have been long forgotten or eclipsed. That eruption of new resources may be as dazzling as unpredictable. The reader is deeply tested, perhaps overturned in a way, as the writer himself suffers, endures, knows a kind of strange ecstasy in the loss of ideal self-deception. That loss is another aspect of the fissuring of bias that opens into a new problematic, new dimensions, of being.

One may speak, I think, of “authorial civilisation”—as I did above—to imply the burden that the imagination may accept and wrestle with in modern allegory. It is the burden of a multifaceted, universal civilisation affecting all cultures whether we like it or not. In that wrestling process the “author” becomes as much a fiction as the “characters” in the text he writes. A living text. By that I mean that a living text is a text of density in which the author is challenged by his or her own creations. A swift illustration of what I am saying in political terms may be stated as follows. At various times countries which would appear to be truly powerful (or the authors of human destiny) would seize on a kind of cornerstone which they considered inviolable and thus no real dialogue took place with the native cultures they governed. They were fastened to a foundation stone which for them was absolute, unchangeable. So whatever changes occurred around them did not affect them. This is still happening today in contexts of authorial realism and power, whereas these so-called authors of human destiny should be at some profound level genuinely involved in responding to the weak, the non-powerful, the victim, the scarecrow, if they are to understand the crisis that afflicts humanity. They may be able to open themselves up to traditions within themselves that they have undervalued or lost. In fact they may be able to illumine crisis in a way that the non-powerful themselves may have difficulty in doing. If they could do that then the whole scene could begin to change, and the all-powerful would themselves begin to change because they would know that their task is no longer simply the task of defending territory.

Equally the burden of “authorial civilisation” may need to be borne or re-interpreted or re-visioned within the creativity of marginal rather than established or powerful figures.

The allegorical dimensions in your work have never been more in evidence than in your recent novel, Carnival. Why is this?

There has been a distrust in the critical establishment of the kind of fiction that attempts to explain itself. I was drawn into allegory in Carnival not because I wanted to do that—I've always in a sense been doing that—but because I felt that there is a justification in tradition for doing that in terms of allegory. There are also different ways of seeing things as you rehearse them through the interplay of the inner guides.

In Carnival, Everyman Masters is the necessary inner guide, but so is Doubting Thomas. In fact, there are several guide figures. Does the post-colonial context in some sense require this kind of plurality?

That question brings us right into the twentieth century, where the necessities may in fact exist for what I call modern allegory. There is a part in Carnival that deals with this very thing: “I was unsure of Thomas, unsure of labels, but I loved him and felt his predicament inwardly and keenly. I knew I was ignorant of the inner problematic of sainthood, as of the religious torment in touching a wound that may fertilise a carnival bond with frustration, anguish, jealousy, violence in subject cultures. He seemed to me as indispensable a guide through the Inferno of history as Masters himself was.” Now that carnival bond with frustration, anguish, jealousy, violence in subject cultures is the colonial and post-colonial context. The question is that every time Thomas touches the wound you have a number of implications in it. There is a carnival bond with subject cultures that have suffered varieties of frustration and anguish. There is the question of the wounds within a society, wounds which apparently disappear as that society becomes more and more locked within its possession, within its privileges—and it intends to defend those at all costs. I am saying that at a certain blind level a religious guide buried very deep in the culture is active. I believe that revolution has its seeds in religion. I believe that religion, using the word religion in its deepest and most remarkable context, cannot be content with the state of the world. Religion is not here simply to promote the status quo, though it may appear to do so. Religion must be concerned with immense truth. It must be concerned with values that go beyond greed, and when a society becomes blind in itself, the religious seed festers at a very deep level and throws up a perverse kind of saint. That religious seed goes deep, it goes into the savage world, the pagan world. It is nurturing itself at a variety of levels. The whole civilisation becomes blind to the implications that have to do with real justice, with real processes in which, for example, starving people can be drawn into the body of humanity. And then you get this perverse figure who comes up like a perverse saint, a perverse demon, and kills. Unless the society understands what is happening to itself it will simply polarise itself more and more from the dispossessed, from those who strike at society. After a time it will have nothing to do but place guards everywhere. Now it's the politicians who have guards and police. Soon it will have to be the civil servants no doubt. Then you have to descend to the Minister of Religion, if you want to use the word “descend.” You may have to put guards around all your members of faculty when they go home and come to work, and gradually, step by step, the whole society will have to guard itself against a stroke that is coming from within itself as well as without itself.

Carnival begins with the idea of a post-colonial state as an abortive culture, a culture that has been raped by the outside. But you seem to be showing that such figurations of colonialism—ones you find often in post-colonial writing—are only partial figurations of history.

Yes, they are partial figurations. One has to bear in mind that running alongside the false shaman and rapist is a recognition of the true shaman who also strikes a blow—a blow of creative implications, not a disfiguring blow. If these matters were not partial, then societies would have no alternative but to become fortresses.

And what about the question of post-colonial history, which seems one of the inheritance of fragments rather than sovereign wholes. Does this relate to the nature of carnival itself? There is carnival in the sense that Mikhail Bakhtin uses it—having to do with the reversal of roles or frames—and also the sense in which Carnival is rooted in a Caribbean and South American cultural practice. Are you dealing with a notion of colonial fragmentation in this novel, and is your concept of “carnival” grounded in that kind of consciousness?

Well, this word “carnival” has crept into various fictions of mine from time to time. But here it did seem to me that in the twentieth century, which is so implicated in colonialism, “carnival” was the best system of values one could involve. The carnival frame goes on but allows different content to play through. So from the outset, mask figures were vitally important. All the characters are mask figures in a way. That means that the burden of what is being played can be transferred along the board. It may become horrific in some instances, but it can be transferred. “Carnival” allows one to ask: what is the mask? And you can't pin down the mask exactly. The mask is a function of spirit—not absolute function, partial function.

Traditionally allegory tends to have in it figures that are partial but that somehow together make up the whole person or the whole soul. I wonder whether or not you are departing from that tradition. When your characters operate as partial figuration they never seem to add up to any kind of whole. Is this perhaps because part of the groundwork for the kinds of partial figuration you employ derives not from traditional allegorical practice but from the post-colonial world of fragmented traditions? And rather than trying to stitch these fragments into an overarching fixed or sovereign whole, are you in fact trying to set them into play in a kind of decentred and unbounded carnival time?

That is true. One is not involved by any means in a totalising thing because there is an incompleteness that can never be overcome, because that incompleteness is the issue that leaves the future open. That is why the roles of the understudy figures are so important in the novel. All these different parts can occupy different positions. A part could be hideously biased, but the parts undergo transmutations, and these transmutations have to do with a transformative scale.

It seems to me that post-colonial cultures, or cultures that have gone through the colonial encounter, may perhaps have inherited from the phenomenal legacy not so much a sense of wholeness, nor a sense merely of eroded tradition, but a sense of fractured tradition. And so, in that assembly of discontinuous fragments from an enormous number of mythic centres, there lies in post-colonial cultures a potential for revision and rethinking—one which in theory may be available everywhere in the world, but which strikes with especial force in the post-colonial context.

I think this is true, and that is why one has come into the kind of fiction one writes. In other words, you are within and without. The post-colonial situation lends itself to this withinness/withoutness, it seems to me, as no other position does, because you may live somewhere in the world and you know you are not fixed there. Wherever one lives, this whole view of partialities and the way they are excavated and transformed, releases a capacity to get these distances—absences, presences, withoutness, withinness—and these positions can change.

So in allegory, we have a mode of writing that deals inevitably with partial elements, which tradition has conned us into believing can be assembled into wholes. What has to be rethought into the basic structure of allegory is the notion that those partial elements are always in a state of flux and are always moving between frames. So that when you combine the mode with the post-colonial fact, a very powerful kind of transformation within apparent stasis takes place. The basic manoeuvre of allegory, which is transformation, gains new authority or new credence within a new kind of cultural grounding that redefines it.

I agree with that entirely. In other words, a tradition that may have seemed to be off the rails as far as ruling scholarship is concerned may be revived so profoundly that it can bear fruit of a remarkable significance that may tell us something of the tradition that is lost.


  1. “Adversarial Contexts and Creativity,” New Left Review 154 (Nov.–Dec. 1985), 124–28; “Comedy and Modern Allegory: A Personal View of the Revival of Dantesque Scenes in Modern Fiction,” Paper given at the VIIIth Annual Conference of A.I.A. (Associazione Italiana di Anglistica) at the University of Turin, 29 Oct. 1985.

Sandra E. Drake (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Drake, Sandra E. “The Search for El Dorado: Conquest in Palace of the Peacock.” In Wilson Harris and the Modern Tradition: A New Architecture of the World, pp. 49–70. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Drake explores the themes of conquest and desire in Palace of the Peacock.]

Conquest is the greatest evil of soul humanity inflicts on itself and on nature.

—Wilson Harris, Explorations, p. 136

Palace of the Peacock, Harris's first novel, develops a version of the Caribbean Ur-myth. … Harris explores how the attempt to find love and self-fulfillment, when misconstrued as desire and conquest, becomes the source of both personal and social disaster. Conquest, which he has called “the greatest evil,” is the attempt to possess the object of desire or to attain a desired objective. Such possession is possible only if one assumes separation between subject and object. Thus the whole psychological and epistemological basis of the idea of conquest depends on the maintenance of identity and differentiation. Palace of the Peacock calls into question the conventionally assumed differentiation of subject and object and the possibility of satisfying desire through any conventionally purposive activity based on such a conventional differentiation. From this point of view the entire plot of the novel, as it is presented on the surface to the readers and as the characters themselves at first understand it, is fundamentally a delusion deriving from confusion about the nature and location of identity and of desired objects or objectives.

The theme of conquest is elaborated primarily through the figure of Donne, who embodies the principle of the conquistador. In this [essay] I focus on the theme of conquest and its relation to the doubling and multiplying of identity in the presentation of Donne, his brother-narrator, and Donne's mistress Mariella. In the next chapter I focus on the members of Donne's crew as they come slowly to an understanding of the sense in which they reciprocally create one another's “individual personalities.” This creation is maintained by a kind of social conspiracy that allows the perpetuation of a conventional but illusory interpretation of reality. The interpretation permits them to confer meaning on their lives and actions through pursuit of desired objects and objectives.

The story ofPalace of the Peacock is recounted largely by an unnamed first-person narrator who at times becomes omniscient, although, as the examination of the text will illustrate, such conventional categories are of only limited usefulness in understanding the book. When the novel opens, the narrator has come into the interior from the coast to join his brother Donne, who is already a legend in the region. Expelled from school and coastal society for his wild behavior, Donne has set himself up in the interior of Guyana, like Conrad's Kurtz, as ruler over a vast area of land that he works by impressing the Amerindians into forced labor. Yet curiously, when the narrator arrives, no one is to be found except Donne and Mariella, Donne's much-abused mistress, presumably Amerindian.

Shortly after the narrator's arrival, Donne learns that his labor force has vanished into the forest, carrying out a rite that must be undertaken every seven years to ward off drought. He flies into a rage, assembles a boat crew, and he, his brother-narrator, and the crew set off along a turbulent Guyanese river in search of the “labouring folk.”

Their first stop is at the Mission of Mariella; but the Mission is deserted except for an old Arawak Indian woman. She warns them that although they can overtake the “folk” in seven days, the journey on the river is extremely dangerous. Donne nevertheless insists on going ahead, and after spending the night camped at Mariella, the expedition sets out in the morning, forcing the old woman to accompany them as a guide.

Like the Creation in Christian mythology, the journey proceeds through seven days. The crew is torn by internal strife, and its ranks are thinned by accidents and the escalation of dissension to murder. In the rapids at the foot of an enormous waterfall, the members of the crew who have survived thus far apparently perish; the novel seems to end in disaster. Yet the lost crew members reappear, in a strange vision of a strange paradise that concludes the book. The pursuit of the fleeing Amerindian “labouring folk” by the conquistador figure Donne, his brother-narrator, and their crew is significant on several levels.

First is the literal historical level, including psychological (emotional, attitudinal) overtones, as even a brief quotation from Naipaul's The Loss of El Dorado serves to illustrate. Naipaul's text refers to a group of early explorers:

The adventure wasn't over. They still had Baltasar, the Spanish-speaking Indian captive; and they had picked up another Indian. They asked Baltasar about El Dorado. He didn't want to talk. He was threatened with death; he talked. He said he would take them to El Dorado. … The man chosen to lead the party … wasn't happy about it. Wyatt heard him say that “in his dream the night before he did senciblie perceave himselfe drowninge. …”

The rivers of Guiana, so “faire, spatious and broade” when first seen … now became a setting for nightmare labour, “both in rowinge, towinge and caryinge the bote. …” In their stupefied state—they [the explorers] had had no water for three days—they began to row in the wrong direction1

Second is the psychological-historical level, in that the relationship Donne and the conquistador-crew bear to Mariella and the “folk” parallels the relationships between Europe and “America,” with “America” understood as a screen for the projection of fantasies.

Next is the economic-historical level. The “folk”—referred to as “the labouring folk” by Donne—represent precisely that basic source of wealth that is labor and that first the indigenes and then the Africans and East Indians provided to the dominant stratum in the Caribbean. Also, socially designated groups like the “folk” are often considered less than human because of the close relationship to nature their social role imposes upon them. Consequently, they mediate between the “human” and the “natural” worlds.

The last significant level is that labor and wealth stand for spiritual-emotional labor, as exemplified in the use of alchemical analogies explored so thoroughly by Michael Gilkes in Wilson Harris and the Caribbean Novel.2

All these dimensions are summed up in the idea and the implications of conquest and desire; these organize the novel. Conquest and desire figure in the pursuit of the “folk” by the crew, in Donne's abuse of Mariella, in his near-hysterical injunction to his brother-narrator early in the novel to rule the land, and in the turnabout during the trip, when it seems probable that the “folk” may start pursuing the crew.

The sequential plot is only one line of movement in this complex book, and not the most important one. The plot line is contradicted from the opening paragraph, when Donne is shot off his horse under the narrator's eyes—killed by Mariella, we are soon told. But the narration is deliberately constructed so that it is impossible to determine whether the narrator is awake or asleep, alive or dead. Soon after, the plot is undermined again when the reader learns that this same crew has taken the same voyage before and been drowned.

Much of the power and artistic coherence of the work derives from the consistency and success with which Harris weaves his tissue of cross-associations, thus illustrating on the stylistic plane the presentation he is conceptually making of the nature of reality. At all levels, the underlying technique is to establish opposition in repetition and then to undermine the status of relations of opposition as a fundamental attribute of reality. The vision of paradise with which the book concludes constitutes a resolution of this opposition.

The repetition that is established first and most obviously is that of Donne and his brother-narrator. This doubling has itself a double aspect: Repetition of identity insofar as Donne/Narrator represent one consciousness, and opposition in repetition of identity insofar as they represent opposing and even antagonistic qualities. The opposition immediately moves, however, from the strictly dyadic (the double) to the multiple, with the introduction of the Watcher in the first paragraph and, most importantly, with the central triadic relationship of Donne/Narrator/Mariella. This central repetition in the text is elaborated in the two versions of the dream of Donne's death. Each of the two versions of Donne's death is fraught with menace. Yet they are crucially different and represent, as do the two trips of the crew, those “parallel possibilities” that, as I discuss in detail in the final chapter, form the basis for Harris's philosophy of hope in human psychological and historical affairs. What changes in the two versions is the point of view, or the nature of the identification the narrator makes, and therefore (insofar as Donne/Narrator/Mariella can be viewed as a single psyche) what has changed is the relationship of psyche to event.

In the first version, the paragraphs that open the novel present the narrator as an external observer who watches Mariella kill Donne but does not see her and does not participate in either Mariella's or Donne's experience of the event. And in the surface recounting of the event, conventional delineations are observed. There appear to be three distinguishable images, a horse that one of them is riding, a gunshot, and a landscape where the action occurs:

A horseman appeared on the road coming at a breakneck stride. A shot rang out suddenly, near and yet far as if the wind had been stretched and torn and had started coiling and running in an instant. The horseman stiffened with a devil's smile, and the horse reared, grinning fiendishly and snapping at the reins. The horseman gave a bow to heaven like a hanging man to his executioner, and rolled from his saddle on to the ground.

The shot had pulled me up and stifled my own heart in heaven. I started walking suddenly and approached the man on the ground. His hair lay on his forehead. Someone was watching us from the trees and bushes that clustered the side of the road. Watching me as I bent down and looked at the man whose open eyes started at the sky through his long hanging hair. The sun blinded and ruled my living sight but the dead man's eye remained open and obstinate and clear.

I dreamt I awoke with one dead seeing eye and one living closed eye.

(pp. 13–14)

The horseman is likened to a hanging man, and the executioner is paralleled with heaven. Thus an implicit equation is made on the one hand between the horseman and humanity and on the other between heaven and his killer, implying less some divine retribution than an inevitable rebalancing deriving inherently from a transgression against the nature of things. “The horseman stiffened with a devil's smile, and the horse reared, grinning fiendishly and snapping at the reins”: Here we have an association between human and devil and also an association of horseman-devil and devil-horse. The horseman has the devil's smile, but it is the horse that is grinning fiendishly. Not only the man but also the mount become eerie. The word “snapping” has disturbing, almost carnivorous, and certainly aggressive connotations. With the assimilation to each other of horseman and horse, the horseman easily becomes transformed into an infernal centaur figure. The historical associations also suggest the ominously looming figure of that man on horseback seen by certain of the Amerindian civilizations, unfamiliar with the horse, as a single unnatural form, and announcing the arrival of the conquistadors and the imminent downfall of traditional Amerindian civilizations.

There are two observers of this event: The narrator and an unseen watcher in the bush, presumably the assassin, experienced by the reader almost as the spirit of the bush or the bush itself rather than as a person. Although Harris does not invoke Kanaima explicitly, familiarity with the lore of the region brings to mind this Amerindian spirit of the bush, who always brings death. This association reinforces the suggestion that there is only one psyche here, for according to tradition Kanaima is always met alone.

The allusion to nonhuman agencies implicated in the murder is strengthened by the immediate assimilation of the “shot” to natural forces: “as if the wind had been stretched and torn and had started coiling and running in an instant.” The next sentence, at first reading, could be a straightforward description of the reaction of an observer to such an event. We may say when shocked by something, “I was pulled up short,” and we may describe our feeling as having our heart squeezed or stifled. Only the words “in heaven” strike that deliberately incongruous note that so often in the novel constitutes the area of overlap with a less obvious association at variance with conventions of the realistic novel.

A warning chord draws the reader back to the first part of the sentence. In this context there is a close association with the horseman, for a startled or fatally struck horseman may literally perform the act the startled observer describes himself as experiencing metaphorically—that is, “pull up” the reins. The “in heaven” then reverberates against the evocation of hell in the preceding paragraph, drawing together around the idea of death and an ambivalent hereafter. In this one sentence, narrator, horseman, and horse are at the same time identified with each other by the words “horseman” and “pulled me up,” yet opposed by the divine-demoniac contrast of the phrases “grinning fiendishly” and “my own heart in heaven.” They are also opposed by their presumably starkly opposed states in conventional reality of life and death, separated by an act and a result—the firing of a shot and a death. This last, life and death, has also split the association between horse and rider: “rolled from the saddle” (position of dominance, cultural artifact facilitating dominance, especially in the historical context of the European invasions) and “to the ground” (returned to earth, to Nature; passive, overcome, dead).

“I started walking suddenly.” This action of the narrator plays off against the description a few sentences earlier of the shot-wind “coiling and running in an instant.” Wind, gunshot, and narrator all move in the direction of the horseman. The narrator watches the horseman and is himself watched. The dead man's eyes are open and clear; the narrator is “blinded and ruled” by the sun in his living sight. Three spaces separate this imagery from that of the next sentence. “I dreamt I awoke with one dead seeing eye and one living closed eye.” This sentence intensifies the merging, established in the preceding sentence, of narrator and horseman into one identity and one vision as apprehended by two separate persons. It calls still further into question the apparent stark realism and clear-cut action of the first paragraph (a waking realism and action already undercut, as we have seen, for the attentive reader by a subtly woven fabric of contradictory associations).

Finally, in the first paragraph there is on the one hand the suggestion of a grotesque kind of respect or recognition of defeat shown by the horseman to his assassin (hanged man to his executioner); his gesture is a “bow to heaven,” suggesting an identification of heaven with the executioner and, by implication, of the executed with hell. Yet there is also the hint of the horseman's complicity in his own death—for he is riding suicidally, pounding away at the earth, the reader is told, “at a breakneck stride.” Such complicity challenges again the clear-cut, temporal, causal, linear sequentially of actor (murderer), act (murder), recipient of action (murder victim). On another level, it calls into question such clear-cut delineations of person, temporality, linearity, and causality and suggests the danger of delusion in the grammatical structure of English, which purports to describe this reality unambiguously, and of the “grammatical structure” of the realist novel—plot, character, event—which claims to do the same.

The repetition, the second version of Donne's death, occurs in a dream the narrator has during “the first night on the soil of Mariella,” after the crew has set out in pursuit of the “folk.” In the dream an animal stands over him,

neighing and barking in one breath, its terrible half-hooves raised over me to trample its premature rider. I grew conscious of its closeness as a shadow and as death. I made a frightful gesture to mount, and it shrank a little into half-woman, half-log greying into the dawn. … I sat bolt upright in my hammock, shouting aloud that the devil himself must fondle and mount this muse of hell and this hag, sinking back instantly, a dead man in his bed come to an involuntary climax. The grey wet dream of dawn had restored to me Mariella's terrible stripes and anguish of soul. The vaguest fire and warmth came like a bullet, flooding me, over aeons of time it seemed, with penitence and sorrow.

This musing re-enactment and reconstruction of the death of Donne ushered in the early dawn. …

(p. 46)

As is the way with dreams or semiconscious fantasies, elements of the first version are present but rearranged and differently charged in this second version, which is a commingling of dream and hallucination. The experience is strikingly characterized by the fluidity and transformation of forms and states: animate-inanimate, human-animal. It is the narrator's experience, not that of another person observed by the narrator as in the first version. Its evocation of the same issues of life and death is cast in unmistakably sexual terms. The “aeons of time” are especially characteristic of certain agonizing and haunting dreams. The tone is much farther from classical novelistic realism than that of the first version. And its conclusion, unlike that of the first version, is not death but a kind of resurgence to life through an “involuntary climax” of a “dead man,” characterized by the narrator's emotional participation in the experience both of the murderer and the murdered, an experience that is active and passive in both the grammatical and the behavioral sense. This symbolism of regeneration through sexuality in death appears also in Ascent to Omai, which draws on the Egyptian myth of Osiris, who is said to have begotten Horus after his death, the mourning Isis being the mother.

In this second version of Donne's death, the narrator has not merely attained a sympathy for Mariella or an understanding of her position and motivation. The text reads: “The grey wet dream of dawn had restored to me Mariella's terrible stripes and anguish of soul” (p. 46; my emphasis). In other words, Mariella's experience is an alienated experience of the narrator's, and therefore, because of the association of Donne/Narrator, of Donne's as well. Since the reader soon learns from the narrator that Mariella killed Donne, the relationship with Mariella is in fact introduced as early as that of Donne and the narrator and is inseparable from it. The title of Book 1, “Horseman, Pass By,” is taken from the poet's desired epitaph in Yeats's “Under Ben Bulben.” It conveys some of the same ambiguity as the first version of Donne's death: “Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman, pass by.” (“Horseman, Pass By” was a title Harris considered for the novel.) But in Harris's novel the horseman does not pass by, indifferent. He is ambushed by life and death, brought down, enmeshed in them, with a suggestion of an equivalence of the two states that is not foreign to Yeats's lines, with their even-handed emphasis “on life, on death.” The horseman's bow is an acknowledgement of the impossibility of outriding either life or death.

The central organizing principle of doubling and multiple repetition occurs on several levels, including that of two kinds of movement: The linear and the circular.

Linear movement figures in the consecutive days of the journey along the river and in the lives of the crew members insofar as they are presented conventionally as having a beginning and an end. Yet the linear trajectory is not (as we are inclined to think of it) a unique trajectory, for both the river voyage and the individual lives of the crew members are repeated at least once. Donne and his crew have taken this journey before, and it has ended before in disaster; the men lie buried at the foot of Sorrow Hill.

The repetitive nature of the circular movement is symbolized by the most important organizing motif, the wheel. The wheel is a very ancient symbol for a spiritual journey. Asoka's wheel occupies the center of the Indian flag. The wheel-mandala as a symbol in Eastern faiths has many well-known variants. In the European tradition, Jung is probably the scholar who has most thoroughly explored the psychological significance of the mandala; it is extensively used in Tibetan Buddhism.3 The Buddha is implored, “Come Blessed One [i.e., the Buddha] we pray Thee, roll the wheel of the dew-sweet Law—which is excellent in the beginning, excellent in the middle, and excellent in the end!”4

Thus the wheel's association with Eastern religions is especially strong, stronger than with Christianity. For although the cross may be interpreted as a quadripartite division of the circle, it is not generally so viewed in the West.

Another possible intriguing connection with Christian symbolism is the swastika as the “crooked cross.” The Nazis' use of the swastika has given it a highly negative charge in the West in our time; but this ancient symbol of life was known long ago not only in India (the word derives from the Sanskrit root “to be”) but also in Persia and Greece.5 Probably, too, it was known in Northern Asia, for with the arms of the cross bent in the opposite direction from the Nazi symbol, it is an important motif among certain Indian peoples of the Americas, whose ancestors came from Northern Asia. Anthropologists generally believe this is an instance of diffusion. The figure itself is not so hard to come upon independently, but the similarity of the complex associations suggests a common origin. In Jungian terms, the common origin would lie in the collective unconscious. This Amerindian use of variants of the circle-wheel and broken wheel bestows a special appropriateness on its use in Palace of the Peacock, with its tale of the pursuit of the Amerindian folk.

Harris's use of the wheel image thus resonates against a rich mythological and psychological background from numerous traditions. It is certainly this, in part, that accounts for the almost archetypically haunting quality of the novel. His most explicit and detailed adaptations, however, draw on a tradition little known in the West—one that Harris also invokes explicitly in other fiction and in his essays. This is the West African mythological tradition, brought to the Caribbean by the slaves and subsequently given a Caribbean development by their descendants. The figure of this mythological pantheon relevant to the present discussion is Anancy, the spider, the trickster figure of several West African peoples. Anancy has certain qualities in common with the god Loki of Norse mythology.6 As trickster, Anancy stands in a somewhat similar antagonistic relation to the other supernatural beings of the pantheon to which he belongs, but he does not have Loki's real malice. That Harris is evoking the associations with Anancy is clear in Palace of the Peacock from his use of Anancy's name and his frequent associations of characters in the novel with the spider through an association between the spider and the wheel; he accomplishes the association both through the wheel shape of the spider's body, with its legs as spokes, and through the wheel shape of the web. For example, when the crew member Wishrop hurtles to his death, he is described as cleaving the air “like a man riding a wheel.” And the motor, “Jennings's machine,” at this point “sent a hideous strangled roar out of the water. It … was dwindling into an indefatigable revolving spider” (p. 101). Wishrop is assimilated to the machine, the wheel, and the spider; he, too, “dwindles,” his hands aloft “for all the world like fingers clinging to the spokes and spider of a wheel”; the fingers are “webbed,” yet another Harrisian play on associations, making him like a water animal and also associating the watery death he meets with web and spider.

The water “wheels,” and Wishrop disappears again. He is broken on the wheel of death; his death is described in terms that recall the allusion to a dead man's ejaculation in the second version of Donne's death: “They [the crew] shuddered and spat their own—and his—blood and death-wish. It had been forcibly and rudely ejected. And this taste and forfeiture of self-annihilation bore them into the future on the wheel of life” (p. 102). Here, as in the second version of the death of Donne, life rises out of death; the wheel of death is also the wheel of life.

In the Amazon basin, various species of spiders are very prevalent. They may grow to great size; one kind is large enough to kill birds. (In The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin commented upon the much greater importance of spiders in the catalogue of fauna in South America than in England.)7 This fact no doubt made more likely the survival of the African Anancy theme in the Americas. The spider must be understood in this book in the context of its literal and cultural availability in the Caribbean, which differs from that of Europe and North America. Similarly, Harris accords a particular value to the sun not only as a life force, a common convention in fiction from temperate regions, but also as a tropical dealer of death blows. In the same way, he uses “the fever”—malaria, the great killer of tropical regions—not as an exotic disease but as having symbolic value exactly because it is a common fact of Caribbean life. Such uses are subtle but important indications of Harris's identity as a Caribbean writer.

The dense weave of Palace of the Peacock gives it its highly distinctive verbal texture. In addition to complex linguistic crossweaving, Harris makes a powerful use of metaphor to imply what R. D. Laing calls the “co-inherence” of states conventionally conceived as opposites.8 This use is evident in the opening to Chapter 2. The first paragraph, quoted below, builds on the cross-associational technique that in the first chapter linked narrator, Donne, devil-horse, Mariella, and the natural forces such as wind, sun, and land to construct a further merging of the “self” of the body and the “other” of the land and to refute these two human conceptualizations of relationship:

The map of the savannahs was a dream. The names Brazil and Guiana were colonial conventions I had known from childhood. I clung to them now as to a curious necessary stone and footing, even in my dream, the ground I knew I must not relinquish. They were an actual stage, a presence, however mythical they seemed to the universal and the spiritual eye. They were as close to me as my ribs, the rivers and the flatland, the mountains and heartland I intimately saw. I could not help cherishing my symbolic map, and my bodily prejudice like a well-known room and house of superstition within which I dwelt. I saw this kingdom of man turned into a colony and battleground of spirit, a priceless tempting jewel I dreamed I possessed.

(p. 20)

Identifying names, Brazil and Guiana, are “colonial conventions.” They aren't real. Yet they are also described as “stone,” “footing,” “ground”—all words that convey solidity, substance. This “map,” “ground,” “actual stage”—an expression connoting “real,” or “locus of action”—refers to the physical topography of the earth. This topography is identified with the flesh and bone terrain of the body, the “symbolic map” that is a dream, yet one with a “body”—a “room and house of superstition” within which the narrator dwells. (In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, this identification is literally true, for the first human beings were made of earth.)

The narrator must not relinquish that map of the savannahs; he cannot help cherishing his symbolic map and his “bodily prejudice.” As the names are an actual stage, so does the body become the actual stage for the individual journey. This body is “a well-known room and house of superstition within which I dwelt,” suggesting both an identification with and a differentiation and distancing from the body, which becomes the immediate and most intimate locale of the action of the “I,” but still conceptually separate from the “I” by being a locale at all. There are intriguing similarities here, couched in far different language, to the issues raised by Lacan and Fanon and discussed in Chapter 1 about how we form these earliest bodily prejudgments and how they may relate, psychologically, socially, and historically, to the worlds we build. The world becomes one with the physical body, and the human being incorporates the earth.

By the same kind of linguistic equation already examined in the opening passages of the novel, the substance of the body here becomes a “house,” a “room.” Earlier the narrator felt himself to be in a room that might be an operating theater where his physical existence is put at risk (whether saved, lost, or altered), or a maternity ward where he awaits birth (or giving birth), or a prison cell where he awaits execution. The body may also be understood as a vessel of life, a vessel of God, equated with the boat in which the crew journeys, and a room wherein we are all prisoners under death sentence, awaiting execution, like the horseman who bows to heaven in the first paragraph of the book.

The map of the physical world is declared to be symbolic. The physical world and the body, which are assimilated to each other, are designated “the kingdom of man,” a phrase that acquires its full significance only when compared with the conventional Christian opposition expressed most succinctly and forcefully in Christ's assertion, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” Yet the tight textual interweaving of allusion and association serves to undercut this dichotomy, to assert their absolute inseparability.

The essential repetitions and oppositions of the novel are presented in the eleven short, straightforward sentences with which Harris opens the novel. There is the opposition of the states of dream and waking, of life and death. There is the opposition between the horseman and the narrator. There is the opposition between the ambusher and the Watcher in the bush, almost a spirit or emanation of the bush itself, on the one side and the narrator and horseman on the other. And finally there is the opposition between the horseman and Mariella.

In the opening passage, Harris has laid out the set of structural conflicts and resolutions whose interplay is both subject and style, form and content, of the novel. He is engaged in that interplay of opposition, separation, and identification and, as dramatically as one could wish, opens a good frontier plot with a mystery (who killed the horseman?) that is very soon resolved, only to give way to more puzzling mysteries—of life and death, dreaming and waking, identity and event—already suggested in the nuances of the first page. His writing is difficult, not because of the difficulty of his language or the sequence of his plot (he is quite straightforward when he undercuts that sequence) but because of the context he creates by his techniques of cross-referential association and plurisignation. As the poet Derek Walcott has rightly said, the novel is “short and memorable as a dream, and troubles us with the evocativeness of a dream.”9

The second version of Donne's death similarly adumbrates the resolution on the novel's final page. It also represents the conclusion of the first principal set of repetitions, Donne/brother-narrator/Mariella. The voyage itself represents the working out of the second set of repetitions, that is, the ways in which the members of the crew reflect and misreflect each other.

A woman first appears in the novel when Donne calls the narrator from “an inner contemplation and slumber” by rapping on the ground with his leg and reintroduces the theme of sleep (for the narrator, since the opening of the novel, has been sleeping and waking in patterns that deliberately defy a clear-cut delineation) with the words, “The woman still sleeping.” Donne is speaking of Mariella, who responds to his rude shouts by emerging from a shack and feeding some chickens: “Donne looked at her as at a larger and equally senseless creature whom he governed and ruled like a fowl” (p. 15).

This first appearance of the woman is accompanied by the information that she, too, has been sleeping. She is the anima, and as I show shortly, the sleeping narrator shares certain qualities with her that Donne has rejected in himself, has as it were deliberately put to sleep. This anima figure is assimilated to the animal/natural member of what is for Donne the primal relation, that between the alternatives of “govern or be governed, rule or be ruled.”

For the “second or third time,” the narrator “half-awakes,” this time to a rapping on his door. Mariella enters, sobbing and disheveled, displaying the whip marks from Donne's beating. The narrator soothes and caresses her. Apparently awake, the two of them descend the steps from the house, taking yet another advance on an earlier scene in which he and Donne watched from the window. The “hanging house,” like many in Guyana, stands on stilts; this one possesses “the tallest stilts in the world,” which recall the opening paragraph by bringing the house closer to both heaven and gestures are several times described as “wooden.”

After the horseman is shot, the dreamer apparently awakes, his and the horseman's vision conjoined in one “dead seeing” and one “living closed” eye:

I put my dreaming feet on the ground in a room that oppressed me as though I stood in an operating theater, or a maternity ward, or, I felt suddenly, the glaring cell of a prisoner who had been sentenced to die. I arose with a violent giddiness and leaned on a huge rocking chair … the house stood high and alone in the flat brooding countryside.

(p. 14)

In this paragraph a set of equivalences is introduced: Operating theater/maternity ward/prisoner's cell. All these are arenas of civilization, understood as referring to those early societies that became urban and developed complex polities generating such institutions as prisons. The first two are even more specific—they are the institutions of modern civilization. But all three also represent a conjoining of opposites; they are highly civilized arenas for the performance of the most basic biological functions that occupy the Nature half of the dichotomy: Birth, maintenance of threatened life, and death. And these arenas oppress the narrator, afflict him with giddiness, that is, with a dizziness and nausea born of spatial disorientation and generally arising from a disruption of visual processes, which is significant given the suggested visual or perceptual disorientation of a “dead seeing material eye” and a “living closed spiritual eye.” In this context, giddiness also evokes the nausea of illness and of pregnancy. The connotation of oscillation implicit in giddiness is taken up in the rocking chair and the wind rocking the narrator—in context, also evoking the rocking of a cradle. The narrator's body stands inside a house, looking out at an external physical landscape and asserting a primal dichotomy of the human spirit: “the desire to govern or be governed, rule or be ruled, forever” (p. 14). This dichotomy can be imagined only by assuming the separation and opposition of subject and object, here and there, inside and outside:

Someone rapped on the door of my cell and room. I started on seeing the dream-horseman, tall and spare and hard-looking as ever. … I greeted him as one greeting one's gaoler and ruler. And we looked through the window of the room together, as though through his dead seeing material eye, rather than through my living closed spiritual eye.

(p. 14)

The paragraph consolidates the equivalences of the preceding paragraph discussed above. The enclosing space is now cell and room (with the underlying implication or resonance of “womb”). Here is the dream-horseman—is he alive or dead? The reader cannot determine, since the narrator has told us on the previous page that this sequence is his dream, even though he seems to awaken. But here the relationship already established in the first paragraph between narrator and horseman is made more precise: They are united by “the oldest uncertainty and desire in the world, the desire to govern or be governed, rule or be ruled forever.” Thus united, they stand side by side and look out, each an eye, a window of a single soul, at “the primitive road and the savannahs …”—that is, at Nature and at the first human attempts to impose Culture, “civilization,” a path through nature.

The next—narrative—paragraphs identify the horseman. “His name was Donne,” the narrator tells us, “and it had always possessed a cruel glory for me.” Again the notion of governing arises, for the narrator continues: “His wild exploits had governed my imagination since childhood.” But the wild boy was expelled from school and left the coast for the hinterland, the “border country” with Brazil; he “turned into a ghost.”

We also see the power attributed to the principle represented by Mariella in this passage:

“Donne cruel and mad,” Mariella cried. She was staring hard at me. I turned away from her black hypnotic eyes as if I had been blinded by the sun, and saw inwardly in the haze of my blind eye a watching muse and phantom whose breath was on my lips. She remained close to me and the fury of her voice was in the wind. I turned away and leaned heavily against the frail brilliant gallows-gate of the sky, looking down upon the very road where I had seen the wild horse, and the equally wild demon and horseman fall. Mariella had killed him.

(p. 16)

This passage returns the reader to the opening paragraph of the novel. Mariella is the assassin, already in these few words herself portrayed doubly: As the battered, submissive woman under Donne's whip hand, literally, and also as his self-avenging assassin. She is furthermore assimilated to the sun, which smites the narrator as she smote Donne (thereby linking narrator and horseman again and also introducing into the novel the power of the Guyanese landscape). It is the dead, blind eye of the horseman that sees, and Mariella's blinding gaze that opens the narrator's inner eye to the “watching muse and phantom,” thus bringing back the Watcher in the bush of the first paragraph. This mythical benevolent female personification is opposed to the assassin; Muse and Fates, Sita and Kali are present here. Mariella's breath is on the narrator's lips; in the next sentence the fury of her voice (voice is articulated breath) is in the wind, returning the reader to the shot that killed the horseman in the first paragraph, ringing out “suddenly, near and yet far as if the wind had been stretched and torn” (p. 13; my emphasis).

The narrator continues, “Mariella had killed him. I awoke in full and in earnest with the sun's blinding light and muse in my eye. My brother had just entered the room” (pp. 16–17).

For the first time in the novel, the reader is told that the world in question is unequivocally the waking world; and in that waking world, the psychological or spiritual link already firmly established between Donne and the narrator is given a material, physical basis with the information that they are brothers. The narrator tells his brother of his dream, admits his unfamiliarity with the local situation, and warns him nevertheless that his brutality is driving Mariella mad. “You are a devil with that woman,” he tells him. Donne's reply is vehement and revealing:

“Dreamer,” he warned, giving me a light wooden tap on the shoulder, “life here is tough. One has to be a devil to survive. I'm the last landlord. I tell you I fight everything in nature, flood, drought … beast and woman. I'm everything. Midwife, yes, doctor, yes, gaoler, judge, hangman, every blasted thing to the labouring people. Look man, look outside again. Primitive. Every boundary line is a myth. No-man's land, understand?”

(p. 17)

“No-man's land” has a double meaning. Because it belongs to no one, it is the possession of anyone able to take and to hold it. And, because it intrinsically belongs to no one (that is, to anyone at all or to any single person), Donne is deluded in his belief that he can possess and hold it.

The narrator goes on to confess to Donne that the dream he has just had is a recurrent one that dates from Donne's departure for the interior. When he sees Donne mocking him, he offers the information that he is himself going blind in the left eye, although in the dream it is his sound right eye that goes blind. He concludes, “And your vision becomes … the only remaining window on the world for me” (p. 18). He finishes with the remark that never before had he seen Mariella in his dreams. This remark constitutes yet another of the incongruities that alert the reader to the levels of the novel below the surface plot and dialogue, for how could the narrator have dreamed of Mariella before when he has only just met her—except, of course, insofar as he is one with Donne or is another aspect of Donne's psyche?

Donne offers additional information about himself in a rumination that establishes an additional link with the narrator. As the narrator has said that Donne became “a ghost” for him, Donne now acknowledges, “I had almost forgotten I had a brother like you. … It had passed from my mind … this dreaming twin responsibility” (p. 19). The passage continues, bringing out a submerged component of Donne's psyche in the recollection of his nurturing qualities and behavior toward the narrator:

His [Donne's] voice expanded and a sinister under-current ran through his remarks—“We belong to a short-lived family and people. It's so easy to succumb and die. It's the usual thing in this country as you well know. … our parents died early. They had a hard life. Tried to fight their way up out of an economic nightmare: farmers and hand-to-mouth business folk they were. … I looked after you, son.” He gave me one of his ruthless taps. “Father and mother rolled into one for awhile. I was a boy then. I had almost forgotten. Now I'm a man. I've learnt,” he waved his hands at the savannahs, “to rule this.”

(p. 19)

Donne here recalls an almost-forgotten androgyny. He immediately rejects it as part of childhood, that is, of a state prior to sexual differentiation. He reasserts his absolute masculinity and the nature of masculinity as the governing and ruling half of that “oldest uncertainty and desire in the world” (p. 14). He perceives the world as externality and surface. Although he recognizes his perception as superficial opposition, in a rare moment of reciprocity or doubt Donne asks for confirmation from the narrator that no need exists to penetrate either inward into his own psyche or backward into the past of his androgynous childhood: “One doesn't have to see deeper than that, does one?” (p. 19). Yet the conclusion of the paragraph and the chapter conveys a need to confront that femaleness.

On the obvious level, the “Mission of Mariella” refers simply to one of the numerous Christian missions that dot the banks of Guyanese rivers. But its other grammatically possible meaning is “Mariella's Mission”; a mission is a special task for which one is destined.

Harris's Mariella represents an “aspect of Mary” unique to him, powerful and both new in the Christian tradition and akin to elements in the much older tradition that gave birth to Christianity; I discuss this in detail later. The suffix “ella,” Spanish for “she,” seems to reinforce the importance of her function as a female principle. Wishrop, the only crew member involved with a woman identified explicitly as Amerindian—a young Arawak woman who nurses him after he is wounded and hides him from the law—conceals the truth about his past with the pretense that he speaks Spanish much better than English because of the long years he worked in Venezuela. In other words, truth and fiction function as a double for each other in the webbed “fiction” may be a “translation” of truth.

The grammatical structure of the phrase “the Mission of Mariella” is thus significant, and this kind of linguistic play is one of Harris's characteristic literary techniques. Mariella's Mission, which is its other meaning, emphasizes the importance of Mariella in the many forms she assumes in the novel. Mariella symbolizes Nature, the Americas, the Amerindians, the land itself. The parallel with the rapaciousness of Donne the conquistador figure assaulting the American earth is clear, with Mariella and Donne as Female opposed to Male, the Euro-American to the American, the Coastal-European society to the interior. These represent archetypical oppositions, with special significance for the Caribbean in its relation to Europe as a double discussed in Chapter 1. The metamorphoses of these “aspects of Mary” constitute a commentary on the relations of Euro-America and the Caribbean and, more fundamentally still, a commentary on the philosophical discourse in terms of which those relations are ideologically conceived.

Clearly, Harris intends references to the Christian mythological tradition in Palace of the Peacock. The number seven has mystical significance in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The voyage of Donne and his crew lasts seven days, paralleling the seven days' creation of the universe, and the rite to ward off drought must be performed by the “folk” every seven years. Mariella's name suggests the name Mary, the female principle in Christianity. The figure of the carpenter near the end of the novel, the vision of the house of many mansions recalling the promise attributed to Jesus in John 3:14, and the madonna figure with the child are other suggestive images. And the idea of a journey toward salvation is certainly consistent with Christian belief.

Yet on a more fundamental level, the Christian framework does not seem as relevant to the novel as this enumeration of images might suggest. The Christian system of meaning is based on not only linearity but also uniqueness. The world moves from Creation to Judgment Day. A clearly distinguishable individual soul moves in human body from birth in original sin, through the chance of a single lifetime at redemption, to a final and irreversible judgment based on that single and unrepeatable life. Both this pattern and this conception of individuality are seriously at variance with the novel.

Most important is that despite the arduous journey and the final vision at the end, this is not really a tale of either salvation or redemption. Nowhere in the book does one find the peculiarly Judaeo-Christian idea of sin. The meaning of Christianity depends on linearity of time and singularity and uniqueness: There must be a single indestructible soul with a single unrepeatable chance for salvation or damnation. This crew, though, is on its second journey along the same route, and there is no suggestion that any limits exist to the number of times the journey can or even must be taken. Not sin, in the sense of transgression against some divine ordinance, but rather blindness, sometimes willful, keeps the crew repeating its journey despite a suggestion of a kind of fall from grace—Donne's earlier voyage is described as “innocent,” and, once, Mariella had felt a genuine affection for him, which he cannot hope to regain in his present course. In many respects, this psychological or spiritual journey has more characteristics of Eastern religions than of Christianity, specifically the idea of reincarnation and the sense of a truth that, although it can be willfully denied and involves the play of karma (deeds) that carry consequences, is devoid of the idea of sin as a violation of laws promulgated by some external divine authority.10

Mariella in one aspect is presented as a submissive and downtrodden woman, not the only role for women in a rough frontier society (Magda, in Harris's fourth novel, The Whole Armour, is a powerful and dominant personality) but certainly a believable one. However, the multileveled presentation of Mariella is considerably more complex, so I do not wholly agree with Hena Maes-Jelinek when she says that Mariella is a traditionally subservient figure.11 The novel's opening scene, Donne's murder, has little enough in it of the worm turning and much that is suggestive of Kali the Destroyer in the Hindu pantheon. Mariella's killing of Donne is of such scale and significance that it transcends mere vengeance. Its mythic, cosmic overtones suggest that the killing is inevitable, that it is in the nature of things, given the behavior of Donne, which violates that nature. Donne's maltreatment of Mariella is also a maltreatment of himself. The novel's reference to the “self-devouring” character of Donne's behavior is apt. To borrow Jungian terminology, Donne is denying the anima or female aspect of himself, and, as in the Hindu image of Shakti, the female without which the male has no strength, his maltreatment of her leads to his own demise. But other “aspects of Mary,” more important in the context of the novel, do not accord with Christian associations. The Mariella of the opening passage, as we have seen, is not an intercessor for mercy with a God who states “Vengeance is mine.” Insofar as it is appropriate to describe Donne's murder as vengeance, she takes her own. She is not an intercessor at all. Neither is her maternal role much stressed. And the importance of the vigorous sexual dimension of the book, which in the end is not denied but resolved, is foreign to the Christian, especially the Catholic, emphasis on Mary as Virgin.

The aspect of Mariella that is finally strongest is that of Creator. Mariella is not the Mother of God; she is God, as we see in the role accorded the anima figure at the end:

One was what I am in the music—buoyed and supported above dreams by the undivided soul and anima in the universe from whom the word of dance and creation first came, the command to the starred peacock who was instantly transported to know and to hug to himself his true invisible otherness and opposition, his true alien spiritual love without cruelty and confusion in the blindness and frustration of desire.

(p. 152; my emphasis)

This anima is not a passive matrix or cosmic womb-locus wherein creation occurs. She is a force that “commands,” and she commands that aspect of existence that is clearly identified as the male complement to her femaleness.

The union of anima and peacock is suggested when the narrator, on the seventh day from Mariella, has a vision of the complex peacock symbol:

The living eyes in the crested head were free to observe the twinkling stars and eyes and windows on the rest of the body and wings. Every cruel mark and stripe and ladder had vanished.

(pp. 146–47)

The reference to the “marks and stripes” recalls the description of Mariella's beating by Donne early in the book. In the second version of Donne's death, the precursor and prerequisite to reconciliation is the restoration to the narrator of “Mariella's terrible anguish and stripes of soul.” Here, reconciliation means becoming one flesh, not only in the union of male and female but also of all the universe. At a moment of crisis during the journey, a crew member named da Silva, protesting a stone thrown at a parrot that he considers an omen from the Mission, a bird that is an object of his love and perhaps an incarnation of Mariella, cries out, “I tell you when you pelt she you pelt me. Is one flesh, me flesh, you flesh, one flesh” (p. 115).

The concept of the female as a powerful divine presence in her own right has been a persistent if minority tradition throughout Judaeo-Christian history. It was present in the Gnostic syncretisms, and the elaboration of the role of Shekhina in Kabbalistic Judaism is the more recent development of an extremely ancient set of beliefs, widespread in the world and well represented in the Middle East.12

In very few areas of the world did the female aspect of divinity lose as much power as in those where the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition holds sway. The ancient prominence of the female divinity is amply attested throughout the Middle East by varied personifications of Astarte, Isis, and others whose worship persisted until very late among the Hebrews as part of their religion; certain explicit passages in the Old Testament bear witness to this. It is to these deities, and not to the more recent dominant traditions of Christianity, that the figure of Mariella, without deriving directly from any of them, is akin.

Mariella in her various manifestations represents an aspect of the triad Donne/Narrator/Mariella, on which I have concentrated in this chapter. In the next chapter, I am primarily concerned with the crew's experiences. For its members, too, represent part of a single psyche, as the narrator indicates when he speaks of the “crew every man mans and lives in his inmost ship and theatre and mind” (p. 48). Harris presents their disaster as the result of the failure or refusal to realize that the desire to conquer is a twisting of the “immortal chase of love on the brittle earth” (p. 31).


  1. V. S. Naipaul, The Loss of El Dorado: A History, pp. 43–44.

  2. Gilkes and Harris himself have both discussed the cauda pavonis (peacock) as the alchemical symbol of spiritual progress. The parrot was believed to announce the proximity to El Dorado, and so functions in Palace of the Peacock. See also Harris, “History, Fable and Myth,” in Explorations, p. 31, on nigredo (blackness) and albedo (whiteness). These colors represent, respectively, the unknown and the discovery of the unknown and are therefore aspects of each other. Which is which depends on psychological perspective. See also Herbert Silberer, Hidden Symbolism of Alchemy and the Occult Arts (New York: Dover, 1971).

  3. Gilkes, Wilson Harris and the Caribbean Novel, p. 66, no. 22. Gilkes here describes the mandala as a symbol of psychic integration. Edward Bernbaum, from lecture notes taken at the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco. See also his The Way to Shambhala (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1980).

  4. The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui Neng. Translated by A. F. Price and Wong Mou-Lam. (Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala, 1977), p. 21.

  5. See entry for “Swastika,” Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, p. 1437, David B. Guralnik, Editor in Chief, Second College Edition (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982).

  6. A collection of over 100 Anancy tales was collected from 60 story tellers in Jamaica just before World War I. They were published as Vol. XVII, 1924, of Memoirs of the American Folklore Society, Martha Warren Beckwith's Jamaica Anansi Stories. Twenty years later, a distinguished West Indian educator published a group of Anansi stories as currently told to children. He stressed differences between Anancy stories as told in West Africa and those told in the Caribbean, the result of centuries of separation between Africans and New World black populations. (Philip M. Sherlock, Anansi the Spider Man, New York; Thomas Y. Crowell, 1954.) A very attractive illustrated presentation of Anancy stories as told today among the Ashanti of Ghana is available in Peggy Appiah, Ananse the Spider (New York: Pantheon Books, 1966).

  7. Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle (Garden City, N.Y.: The Natural History Library, Anchor Books: 1962), p. 35.

  8. R. D. Laing explains “coinherence” thus: “As Sartre would say, the family is united by the reciprocal internalization by each (whose token of membership is precisely this interiorized family) of each other's internalizations.” From Politics of the Family and Other Essays, p. 5.

  9. Quoted by Frank Collymore in a review of Palace of the Peacock,Bim 9, (July-December 1961): 76.

  10. Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (New York: Grove Press, 1974).

  11. Hena Maes-Jelinek, The Naked Design (Aarhus, Denmark: Dangaroo Press: 1978), p. 35 ff.

  12. Two excellent discussions may be found in Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1967), and Gershem Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (New York: Schocken Books, 1965).

Sandra E. Drake (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Drake, Sandra E. “Tumatumari: The Great Game.” In Wilson Harris and the Modern Tradition: A New Architecture of the World, pp. 91–107. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Drake explores the feminist themes of family, society, and history in Tumatumari.]

We play the game of history, my child

Henry Tenby, Tumatumari, p. 127

History never repeats itself but it never outlasts itself either.

Comrade Block at Port Mourant, Tumatumari, p. 74

The consequences of centuries of failure to resolve social oppression in Guiana are explored in Tumatumari. The oppressive relations obtain among races and between the sexes; the exploration is organized around shifting patterns of identification and differentiation within the collective psyche of a family. The principal locus of this reorganization of collective familial and societal experience is the mind of Prudence Tenby Solman. The almost simultaneous deaths of her newborn child and her husband precipitate her mental breakdown; the reorganization occurs in the brief period between these events and her suicide, which has a paradoxical quality of finally triumphant and redemptive sacrifice and rebirth.

The great game, the game of history to which Henry Tenby, Prudence's father, refers, is played out in several arenas. The individual psyche of Prudence is a distinguishable locus. But it is not conceivable apart from its place in the structure of the family pattern, and the family pattern is not comprehensible without reference to the social patterns of Guyanese society.

The narration takes the form of a complex set of flashbacks during Prudence's breakdown. The organization of the narration reveals Harris's idea of the way in which collective trauma, and the individual trauma to which it gives rise, may be translated into memory and into art.

The daughter of a respected, highly conventional historian, Henry Tenby, and his even more conventional wife, Diana, Prudence grew up in Georgetown as a member of the urban, coastal bourgeoisie. Her crisis occurs in the Guyanese interior at Tumatumari, where, about a year before the novel opens, she has come to join her half-Amerindian husband, Roi Solman. He is an engineer supervising a crew of local Amerindians; he sees himself as involved in an important historic task, “the electrification of the Amazon.”

The Tumatumari site, overshadowed by Konawaruk Mountain, is deep in the interior; the roaring waters of a rapids break on the “Sleeping Rocks”—Tumatumari, in the local Amerindian tongue—near the camp.1 While exploring the area around the Tumatumari site, Prudence discovers an abandoned well. The remaining ledge of stone becomes her favorite spot to sit and reflect. Later, she learns that Roi fell down here and injured his head. In the course of the novel the place is called The Chair of the Well and The Chair of History (after the chair on which her father sat when he held her as a child); Prudence identifies it as the place where her psychological “conception” and “birth” occur.

But trouble comes. The Amerindian crew takes the appearance of a mysterious file of Indians as an ill omen. Both the crew and Prudence believe that Roi has impregnated Rakka, the Amerindian servant, although Roi denies this. The appearance of the Lost Tribe of the Sun confirms the Amerindians' feeling that the crossing of boundaries indicated by this miscegenation is evil. The crew deserts. In a desperate gamble to get them to return to work and save the engineering project from failure, Roi resolves to exorcise the evil by playing the sacrificial role of scapegoat in the Ceremony of the Rock, a role a half-caste must fill. Prudence warns him of the danger in treating the Amerindian beliefs in such an instrumental way.

Roi is away on an expedition when he hears of the birth and death of Prudence's child. He rushes to return. Camped on the far bank of the river from the house, unwilling to wait for morning, he tries the crossing alone in the night. His boat crashes in the rapids, and he is decapitated on the Sleeping Rocks of Tumatumari.

The two basic components of Prudence's psychological reevaluation during her breakdown are confrontation with Guyana's African and Amerindian heritages. Her parents' lives were dominated by a veneration of the values and symbols of Euro-America. Diana, her mother, who grew up in Canada and could pass for White, is an ardent enthusiast of the British royal family. Henry, her father, who is visibly of mixed racial ancestry, was educated in the United States and Europe at the cost of great sacrifice by his father, a struggling rice farmer. For them, the good, the beautiful, and the true are to be found in Euro-America. The rejection of the Caribbean self, the fear of Caliban, is carried to its most sinister extreme in Diana's rejection and mistreatment of the darkest child, their only son, Hugh. Henry acquiesces in this rejection of son and self.

Their behavior indicates that the location of personal value lies in rejecting the truth of the physical self, and the location of social value lies in rejecting the truth of the Guyanese historical and cultural self. Henry's public and professional life has been as hypocritical and destructive as his private life. He remains passive during periods of political repression by Britain and tailors his historical writings and policy recommendations to avoid disturbing the status quo.

Henry Tenby has been dead for thirteen years when the novel opens. He has bequeathed his papers to Prudence, his favorite child and spiritual heir. His true legacy, however, is a confrontation with the profound cleavage of psyche that her father's self-imposed hypocrisy and repression inflicted on him. This cleavage or wound drives such a division into his life that he experiences each of his five children as having had two separate conceptions. The first conception occurred in the Brothel of Masks, a secret domain and a region of psyche where he chose—like masks—the faces he presented to the conventional world and according to which he lived his life. Paradoxically, the true meaning of his relation to his children and to his society lies in understanding these profoundly false self-conceptions.

His childrens' second conception is the normal biological one. To borrow Laing's terminology, the second conception belongs to the biological family; the first, in the Brothel of Masks, belongs to the introjected family. The disastrous incongruity between the two kinds of family does not constitute only a private tragedy peculiar to the Tenbys but it also derives from and represents the cleavages and incongruities bequeathed by Guyana's painful collective history.

From her father's papers Prudence has learned that he attributed the distortion of his life and work to

fear of the deepest confrontation with the shackles of humanity, fear of the total transplantation of himself, voyage of himself, expenditure of himself, expenditure of all he possessed. He was Eurasian (Amerindian on the wrong side of the blanket) and though he never directly confessed it, afraid of his African cargo, African momentum, African legacy.

(p. 102)

Prudence does not truly grapple with her familial and cultural inheritance, revealed in her father's papers, until her own crisis at Tumatumari. To meet the African legacy, she must confront the family's treatment of Hugh. She must also confront her sister Pamela's decision to marry a White soldier from the United States, immigrate to New York, pass for White, and put her Black child up for adoption. To meet the Amerindian legacy, she must confront life at Tumatumari and her relationship with Roi and the equally disturbing and ambiguous relationship each has with Rakka.

Prudence's growth in the novel pivots on patterns of familial equations she makes during her breakdown. The central equation is the doubling of identity she senses between her husband and her father: “different as they were in poise or carriage they shared indeed one vehicle of the imagination. They both appeared to her … like outriders of remorse—closely guarded ‘secret’ …” (p. 46).

This doubling has two sources. One is the intersection of Nature and Culture in marriage, especially in the simultaneous joining and separating of Nature and Culture represented by the incest taboo. The other lies in the two men's meeting of the social tasks history bequeaths them—tasks each fails to resolve and that pass to Prudence. In Harris's words, the whole burden of conception falls on her. Prudence succeeds in meeting the challenge—paradoxically, in the course of suicide.

I discussed in chapters 3 and 4 Harris's unusual combination of traditional, almost mythic, presentations of women at the same time that he introduces powerful variations. In Palace of the Peacock, Mariella is a defeated, subjugated, oppressed woman; a muse; and the most powerful, vigorous, initiating creative principle in the universe. Donne the conquistador turns out to be an androgynous, nurturant figure, a “mother” as well as a conqueror and ruler.

In Tumatumari, Prudence appears first as daughter to a historian; then, as her father wished, as wife to a “cultural engineer.” The mythic elements are traditional. Roi is the huntsman, set the manly task of slaying game. In a role recalling traditions common in Africa, he, as Roi Solman—“King Sun-Man”—must play the sacrificial victim for the good of the “folk.”

Yet the “game” Roi pursues when he sets out to hunt as his “first task” is also the “game of history.” And Roi, like Donne, becomes an androgynous figure. At book's end, it is not father (Henry), son (Hugh), or son-in-law/husband (Roi) who fulfills this task, a task that in its mythic form is always a male one and in its current form—the life of scholarship, engineering, public policy—is conventionally a male one. Remarkably, Harris uses the metaphors of conception, pregnancy, and birth not to apply to male creation but to stand for his female protagonist's successful accomplishment of cultural tasks that in both mythic and modern terms are conventionally allotted to males and that the male characters in the novel undertake and fail. Her success is not by dint of roles as daughter, wife, or sister but by dint of her own courage. She succeeds in her own right—and the symbolism of her success is female.

The passage describing Roi's decision to attempt the river crossing conveys his enigmatic personality, which troubles Prudence from the beginning of their life together in the hinterland. As he stands ready to cross the river, a foremost concern is a flare-up in the border quarrel between Guyana and neighboring Venezuela. Venezuela claims the land on which the campsite at Tumatumari stands, and Roi reacts passionately:

Why the very ground beneath him and the very house on the hill where his wife lay across the river were involved; territory he had lit however flickeringly: his own matchless wilderness. And no one would take it from him he cried: deep exacerbation, physical exhaustion, the long journey he had made, half-dreaming, half-waking bridges of sleep. The engineer within him like a subterranean spirit of desire drew close to the surface of his mind and he sprang to his feet.

(p. 18)

It is the “engineer within him,” which he identifies later as his “devil,” that drove him to bring flickering light to the backlands. It is this devil that impels him to quit the borderland of sleep and try the night journey across the river, which ends in his death. There are echoes here of Palace of the Peacock and Donne's drive to acquire and possess. In a manner suited to his name, which means “king,” Roi speaks in the passage quoted above with insistent possessiveness of “his” wife, “his” wilderness. There are echoes too of the horseman's breakneck ride across the land, which kills Donne just as the Sleeping Rocks kill Roi. A passage in Tumatumari that refers to Roi as “severed head of ruler/ruled,” recalling “the oldest uncertainty and desire in the world … to rule or be ruled, forever” (Palace, p. 14), and a description of Roi as an “outrider” also link him with Donne the Horseman, who outrides neither life nor death. Indeed, Roi's death ultimately results from a failure to respect the land and the people and from his attempt to manipulate them for his own ends.

Yet Roi's relationship to the land, to the Amerindians, to women, to the interior, is more complex than Donne's. He is half-Amerindian himself and mentions this as significant to him. He sees his own intentions as being progressive and generally benevolent, and at the same time he becomes increasingly aware that they are inadequate, even wrong, in the context in which he works.

When Roi calls for his gun after the desertion of his huntsman, raving that he must once again play the role of half-caste and outcast in the Ceremony of the Rock, Prudence calls him mad. “‘Call it what you like,’ he was beside himself. ‘The death of the old king … the birth of a new creation. …’ He was looking at her from a great distance” (p. 52). Yet Roi is aware of the deficiencies in his relationship with the Amerindians. Thus, when Prudence demands to know who the “wretched Indians” are, he tells her “‘They're the conscience of our age … in this part of the world anyway’” (p. 35).

The Lost Tribe of the Sun, the mysterious strangers whose appearance precipitates the desertion of the crew, comes as a warning to Roi, too:

Who were the lost Indians of the sun anyway? No one knew. And yet clearly one had seen them and would continue to make news of them until one was brought to book for the use one had made of credulity/incredulity in the name of science, emancipation, industry all rolled into one (self-interest).

(p. 34)

The Amerindians reject the intrusion into their world that Roi's impregnation of Rakka represents; Roi implicitly rejects Amerindia in his intention of deliberately manipulating Amerindian belief in the Ceremony of the Rock. The Lost Tribe of the Sun will continue its periodic visitations until the cultural dilemmas are satisfactorily resolved.

Prudence's recollections during her breakdown are heavily concerned with her heated discussion with Roi at the time of the work crew's defection. It is then that Roi tells her of the serious head injury he sustained in the fall down the well five years earlier. The company funding that project had subsequently gone bankrupt, and the undertaking was abandoned. In words equally applicable to the injury he sustained, Roi calls the financial abandonment “the final blow” (p. 7). This failure is important in the context of his telling Prudence of the Amerindians' “kinship with the Rock of the Sun which they had once made in their own light” (p. 32) but that “with the extinction of an original myth of creation after Conquest had retired into what was virtually for them their ‘death’ or ‘sleep’ of fire. They saw the sun now as an archaeological ruin … at the end of an age within which they had lost a primal vision” (p. 32). But Roi's scientifically advanced, “civilized” company has gone bankrupt, too. It is not the Amerindian myth alone that is out of resources. The conquest signalled the ultimate defeat of both sides of the victor-victim stasis.

The Lost Tribe appears to Prudence, too. She and Roi encounter the mysterious folk separately. Prudence sees them from the Chair of the Well as they file silently through the forest and glide away down the river in a corial, an Amerindian canoe. The reader learns that Roi “runs into” them under the waterfall. The significant phrasing sends images through Prudence's mind of the “scene of arousal,” of sparks and metallic waterfall, of “headlong collision” (p. 34). Because of the nonlinear narration, these phrasings, which come to Prudence before Roi's death, become in the retrospective narration after it prefigurations of the fatal shattering collision with the Sleeping Rocks of Tumatumari. They also express the novel's metaphors of sexuality and reproduction. Chair of the Well (Western history-mythology) and Sleeping Rocks (Amerindian mythology-history) both represent an encounter with the past. A reconception and rebirth of both cultures is needed by both and requires the participation of both. Prudence's stillborn child, Rakka's ambiguous pregnancy, and especially Prudence's successful sacrificial suicide and rebirth must be understood in this context, which involves Guyanese ideas of the relationship of coast and interior.

Roi's affinity for the interior deeply disturbs Prudence. At times she can no longer recognize in him the man who courted her in the genteel Georgetown setting where she was raised: “His [Roi's] capacity for singlemindedness … seemed to her there within the artifice of society—an enormous hidden fire. But now in the heart of the interior it turned almost menacing” (pp. 21–22).

The crisis at the work site requires Roi to perform tasks that on the level of plot are mundane and yet are narrated to the reader and experienced by Prudence in mythic terms that emphasize his rapport with the landscape of the interior and his increasing immersion in archaic myth. Because his huntsmen have fled, he goes after game himself for Rakka's semimagical stew pot, which is never empty. Significantly, too, he calls not for Prudence but for Rakka to bring him his gun. When he goes after game it is described as “the first task he must perform in the absence of his huntsman” (p. 53). The description of his return suggests something close to a merging with the very geology of the landscape. He is half-naked in the heat, bent almost double, and appears to be crowned with the grinning tusked head of the slain boar he carries on his back:

The line of the mountains appeared now like a lofty crest of the water breaking its own wave ceaselessly … the vast waving outline of the mountains and the transparent ocean of the sky within and beneath which fell away other exposures, shorelines, crests and seas like interior jungles of oceanic worlds.

(p. 53)

By contrast, Prudence's sense of alienation at Tumatumari is strong. It is increased by her estrangement from the reaction Roi and Rakka share when Rakka's mother dies. The older woman had refused to join her daughter in settling at the Tumatumari site, continuing to wander with her husband and a remnant band of nomadic Amerindians. She comes to visit Rakka from the upper reaches of the Potaro River, above Tumatumari:

The day began when Rakka's mother fell on the hill and died almost instantly, vomiting blood. … Roi declared noncommittally that the symptoms she revealed were those of chronic malnutrition. … Prudence was horrified at his and Rakka's acceptance of the death.

(p. 21)

Prudence's reaction reveals her attempt to forge a bearable relation with the inorganic world and with organic processes:

Sometimes when she stared into his [Roi's] eyes and the memory returned of the ancient Amerindian woman lying dead on the hill covered in filth it was as if the horror of immunity dawned upon her—Archangel of Sewers—and she wanted in an instant of revulsion to slam fast the lid of the well. Who would in her right senses drink at such a poisoned spring? One drop on her lips was instant plague, death. Yet the old woman had drunk and survived all her life and subsisted upon the scum of the elements. Rakka had been conceived by her when she was fifteen. At forty-five when she died her body looked old as the hills, old as Konawaruk, her face made of wood, her eyes of stone—chronic assimilation of environment … subsistent upon poisons.

(pp. 81–82)

Prudence is horrified by “immunity” because she understands that it is a kind of contamination. Physiologically, immunization is a process whereby one organism learns to live with another life-form by incorporating it. Paradoxically, one becomes safe from danger by accepting it within oneself.

Immunity and many other biological processes are significant metaphors in Tumatumari. One of the most important is pregnancy, which like immunity is seen as a kind of contamination. The basic analogy, on the individual level, is to the ways in which people see themselves in other individuals. Thus at one point Roi sees Prudence for what he was “—a pregnant vessel bearing within the treacherous soil of another” (p. 37). On the societal level, the analogy is to both cultural and to physical cross-fertilization in a society like Guyana's, with many ethnic groups and a history of miscegenation. Thus as Prudence's understanding of Roi's and Rakka's ambiguous relationship matures she begins to see that the significance of a fruitful union between him and Rakka lies in Roi's attainment of a psychic integration of his Amerindian ancestry and a cultural integration of two sources of power, Western science (electrification of the Amazon) and the resources of the Sleeping Rocks (“frozen sun”). At one point, in a half-dreaming state, Prudence identifies Rakkas as “the cradle of the sun.” At the same time she intuits the future birth and death of her own child and thinks, “That Rakka could be Roi's mistress and play the part of newfound child (lost tribe of the sun) seemed, at this moment, to possess a primitive foundation of rightness” (p. 43). This idea differs from the patronizing attitude toward the “native” as “child.” Rather, the context here implies the Amerindian as “oldest ancestor” who must be born again—reincarnated—as flesh and as cultural continuity, before Guyanese society can have any true descendants. This is the significance of the word play on the “barren” Sleeping Rocks and Roi's insistence on a “barren Rakka,” unable to conceive because of a fall—as he fell, down the well.

Prudence's dawning comprehension of the relationship between herself and Rakka is as important as her growing understanding of how Roi relates to Rakka. In a fundamental sense, Prudence and Rakka “impregnate” each other as much as they are (or are not) impregnated by Roi. At one point when Rakka bends over her, she meets Prudence's mouth with her “dreaming lips.”

Adding to the complexity of relations with the Amerindians and the interior is a paradox: At the crucial point when the work crew deserts, Prudence, who feels estranged from the Amerindians, nevertheless understands better than Roi both the deficiencies and the dangers inherent in his treatment of the crew's beliefs. She warns him: “You still don't see the rapids—how deep and swift are the emotions on which you gamble for control” (p. 37).

This retort to her husband illustrates the double level—familial and societal, psychological and sociological—on which the novel functions, a complexity that Prudence comes to understand still more fully in the course of her breakdown:

What had started as an adventure into the hinterland of ancestors (an explorer's game, marriage to an explorer) suddenly turned into the night of the womb … to put one's “history” together again was to begin for the first time to face the dangerous game one had been playing all along (one's ancestors, one's family) with nature.

(p. 152)

Prudence's words of warning also become prophecy, for the power of the Tumatumari Falls will shortly kill Roi. In the equation between the rapids, the feelings of the Amerindians, and the feelings Prudence discovers when she becomes an explorer not only into the Guyanese interior, to Tumatumari, but also into the psychological interior of the Guyanese mind as represented by her family, Prudence is also prophesying her own death in those same rapids.

The warning, however, is not a warning to eschew the gamble. In fact, the whole book conveys the idea that the gamble is the only hope of awakening the “frozen sun” of Tumatumari, that guiding conception that died for the Amerindians with the European conquest. Electrification, associated with the person of Roi, represents science, the set of concepts most distinctively characteristic of modern Western culture. In the name of science, and by means of material results obtained from applying the concepts to the physical world, nuestra América's subjugation was accomplished.

The question of Rakka's pregnancy becomes a stimulus for the understanding of the relations obtaining at Tumatumari as a doubling of those obtaining years before in the Tenby family. Thus, Roi tells Prudence that the Amerindian work crew, who walked away because they thought the Lost Tribe of the Sun disapproved of miscegenation between Roi and Rakka, saw “the incestuous barricade of families in the name of virtue as FEAR … Fear of the stranger creeping in” (p. 71). They are like Prudence's family, he continues; they want Rakka to “pass” as “a barren woman,” to which Prudence rejoins, “‘This isn't true at all—about me—my family. You have no right to say such things …’” (p. 71).

Prudence's indignant rejection of Roi's remarks is belied by her own recollections of her family. “Hugh Skelton knew from the beginning he was born black,” the reader is told (p. 119); and Prudence remembers how, at their mother's insistence, he was

given the hardest chores … to perform. Sometimes when there were distinguished visitors from overseas … he was told to go to his room. Play skeleton in the cupboard. Cruel and absurd. Her father always protested but his wife and daughters knew how forbearing he was and ignored him with impunity.

(p. 45)

Prudence's father, Henry Tenby, has thought of his son Hugh as the “brick in his fist” (to which Prudence alludes in her musings). There is also an “element of fear” in his longing for a son: “The black warlord which might spring from his head, fully equipped. With a fist like a hammer” (p. 130). This son is born like Minerva and personified as Mars. To Henry, Hugh represents both the suppressed part of his personality, which is celebrated as being a gentle one, and the wisdom he has failed to show in many important ways. Hugh in fact dies as a “warrior.” He is killed in the course of his political activity, attempting to affect the country's direction during a crisis that had long been building and that Henry Tenby, succumbing to his paralyzing fear, had never sought to avert in its incipient stages.

Prudence's recollections of her family are related primarily in two episodes. The first is a conversation she overhears at age fifteen between her parents and her older sister Pamela, who has just informed them that she is pregnant by a White disc jockey from the United States who is now in military service. She intends to marry him, move to New York, and pass for White. She does not understand her father's violent reaction, given his own toleration of the mother's attitude toward Hugh. But at last Henry Tenby starts to speak out, telling Diana and Pamela that he was “done for” years ago, “echoing” Roi's words to Prudence much later at Tumatumari that what he is doing (being an engineer) is capable of “doing him” in the end. Henry Tenby says: “‘I must put up a front for you and for society. Propped myself up to serve your interests. … Wouldn't it have been healthier if I had struck?’” (p. 62). But Diana is having none of it, intent only on calming him down and calling for the doctor. She says “‘My dear. … How could you hit me? … You're not a violent man. … Lie back …’” (p. 63).

Henry calls for an article he once published, “‘In that bookcase over there. That's where I lie …’” (p. 64). His advice at the time of writing the article, he remembers bitterly, had been:

Stick to what you know. … Bow to institutions. … The conservancies had emerged at great cost—capital and labour. They represented a necessary non-reciprocal historical nucleus, sugar above all, which must remain dear to us. Their design went back two centuries if one contemplated the earliest of polders and dams to withstand the floodplain of coastal rivers. … Hold it at bay.

(p. 64)

Apparently Henry Tenby is talking about a joint project he engaged in with an engineer years before, a project whose title he now says ironically should have been “Sarcophagus of Industry.” He goes on, in the same scene, to admit that he was wrong—“Christ forgive me”—in trying to impose common sense on the findings he wrote up, when “comprehensive spirit-level investigation (uncommon sense) showed the lie of the land rising and falling significantly, however gradually, however secretly” (p. 64). Henry Tenby believes that the revolution for which he hopes, the attainment of the “psyche of the new world,” will not soon occur, for Prudence reads in his papers after his death:

Man lives in history and it will take centuries—whatever mask of emancipation he wears—it will take perhaps another thousand years of flight through space for him to emerge from the psychology of fear. … Decent people (so-called)—good people (so-called) are all trapped by Fear. Fear of race for one thing. Fear of sex for another.

(pp. 103–10)

Henry Tenby knows that to overcome these fears will be both difficult and painful. Where these two fears are deeply interwoven—as they are in the saga of Guyana that Harris relates in Tumatumari and as Frantz Fanon suggests they are throughout the European-colonized areas—the psychological knots are compounded. This difficulty is especially evident in Tumatumari in Henry Tenby's relations with women in his life: Prudence, his favorite child; Pamela, whose racial and cultural defection through marriage precipitates his first open acknowledgment that he believes he has betrayed himself, his children, and his society; Isabella, the woman he met in Europe who is presumably White, his first love; and Diana, his wife. Prudence conflates her father, husband, and child who died at birth; Henry's images of the important women in his life shiver, shatter, and reappear fragmented and differently reflected and associated from their first appearances. Both processes constitute a form of doubling. Thus, only near the end of his life does he admit that Pamela is “the spitting image” of Diana. The resemblance extends beyond physical appearance. He is speaking of Pamela's rejection of all things Guyanese, and especially of Black Guyana. By implication Tenby thereby acknowledges that his wife, Diana, has in fact rejected both herself and him. The price she has exacted for being a loyal, loving, and supportive wife throughout their marriage has been Henry's consent to her denials and his acceptance of the “colonial conventions” to which she is devoted. The relationship is founded on a complicity in lies, evasions, and rejections concerning both race and sex.

The distortion of relations between men and women with regard to sex and race is central to the pathology of Henry Tenby's own marriage. He married Diana thinking her to be a sexually experienced woman of the world, an illusion that she deliberately fostered. On their wedding night he acted on this misconception and in effect raped her. Their relations were from then on insincere; neither understood the other:

He felt that she hated him but in fact just as he had misconceived her game before, he misconceived her sorrow now. This was clear to him at long last within the royal seal of death, marriage-bed of history. She did not hate him at all—she hated herself, shattering of an illusion.

(p. 147)

Harris identifies the perversion of relations between men and women and the perversion of relations between races as being at the root of the psychological and social paralysis that he describes as arrested maturation. If the novel focuses most strongly on Prudence's consciousness and the equations she makes between her father and her husband, a strong secondary focus is one the relation between Henry and his daughters, Pamela and Prudence, and between Henry and his son, Hugh.

In Henry Tenby's uncommunicated grief over his son's death, conveyed only long after the tragedy, he makes an association between the lie of his life work (his historical writing), his relationship to his political community (shown in the phrase in the following quotation “to confirm his state or constitution, 1 + 1 = O”), and his relationship with Hugh. The last association is indicated when the title he suggests for an article, “Sarcophagus of Industry,” is echoed in this passage:

Sarcophagus of industry in which he beheld the sum of all his hopes. Frozen capital.

Sum and son of all his hopes—Hugh Skelton lying upon his bier. Shot in the streets of Georgetown. Budget Riots 1962. The shock of confrontation, of standing upon a frontier of frozen resources—frozen profits—broke him into two to confirm his state or constitution, I + I = O. … As if the score … had been fused long before Hugh was born in his own barren breath. … Message for Hugh Skelton. This bullet fired by your father's rich kith and kin all races of endeavour—white + brown + black.

(p. 120)

In a brief passage immediately following, a passage whose quality as an almost bitter aside is emphasized by its italicization, the reader learns that Pamela goes to New York and there gives up for adoption the Black child born to her: “Pamela continued to pass for white: economically rewarding. But something in her she confessed died for good turning her into an ornament, lovely skin, lovely like the label on a box of soap” (p. 66).

Prudence, who becomes responsible for the necessary cultural reconception after her brother's death and her sister's defection, first undertakes the encounter with rejected ancestors. She does this by confronting her own reaction to the body of Rakka's dead mother and her own jealousy of Rakka and then through facing the unpleasant fact of her father's refusal to accept the “African cargo” in his ancestry and his collaboration with Diana in rejecting Hugh.

When Pamela tells her parents of her intention to leave Guyana forever, Harris writes that Henry Tenby “would have given his right arm to establish himself upon a watershed of time—one slope leading back into the abyss of slavery—the other moving forward towards a contour which invoked the past again but not upon a level of ‘connivance,’ rejection, ‘conspiracy,’ consent …” (p. 62). But it is Prudence who explores both slopes.

Henry and Roi are both described as owing a debt to their historical origins (p. 86). As the bourgeois economic system that arose in Europe amassed capital—congealed human energy—and turned it into potential economic power at devastating human cost, so did that social system exact a devastating psychological cost, both in Europe and in the colonies. This damage is revealed especially clearly in the personality of Henry Tenby. The enormous repression in the psyches of individuals in the society constitutes, however, an equally powerful latent energy for healing and growth as well as for destructiveness. In this respect it parallels the possibilities latent in the economic accumulation of the European society that colonized Guiana, becoming what Harris calls “spiritual capital.” I discuss his development of this idea of latent psychological and cultural resources in Chapter 7; he casts it in a specifically African idiom in Ascent to Omai.

In portraying the inner voyage that Henry began but would not finish, into what is called “an immensity of origins,” the novel invokes a litany of Guyanese place-names in a context of significant symbolism:

… lanterns which rose up here and there to greet one with a password—road to Mahaica, Mahaicony, Abary, Berbice, Canje, Crabwood Creek, Courantyne. Or a welcome signal of lamps which spelt a brilliant punctuation mark of industry upon the sugar estates domain. … These were, in short, the coastal defenses one expected to find which some three centuries (invasion and penetrative settlement) had erected against the inroads of Night—the womb of the Amazon.

(p. 37)

Henry's journey through the night leads inland toward the “womb of the Amazon”: “His destination was Tumatumari. But first he must turn into the ghetto of Canje—land of the runaway slave—in search of the footprints of Eve rechristened Pamela” (p. 37). Only thus can he come to terms with the “African cargo.” But it is Prudence, not Henry, who arrives at the destination and who also makes the necessary detour through Canje, which was in fact the “land of the runaway slave.” The journey must go through Canje on the way to the goal the conquistadors sought in El Dorado: Gold and precious stones, here the Rocks (stones) of Tumatumari, and “the buried lapis of unity” to which Henry Tenby refers in the scene dealing with Pamela's pregnancy and that is identified with the Sleeping Rocks of Tumatumari; lapis is Latin for stone, rock.

“Prudence” is the great bourgeois virtue and the central personality quality Henry Tenby has cultivated. “‘Prudence is the watchword,’” he thinks at one point. Yet it is his daughter Prudence, of whom he says at a period of crisis, “‘She'll find it [his article] … that girl has imagination’” (p. 63), who takes the enormous psychological risk that may awaken the Sleeping Rocks of Tumatumari for a new age. On one level, the generation to which Henry Tenby belongs and that of Prudence, Hugh, Pamela, Rakka, and Roi are “destroyed.” No progeny survive in this novel. On another level, the very repression and distortion provide the power for the psychological breakthrough at Tumatumari.

This breakthrough is accomplished in the concluding book of the novel, a brief six pages, when Prudence's “translation,” to use Harris's word, becomes as it were the true Ceremony of the Rock, as Roi is forced finally to recognize it, a game

which Roi had played with Rakka until it ceased to be a mere game and turned into a matter of life and death. His blood froze within the waterfall. … No longer a jealous idolatrous game, a business deal with the natives, a stilted house on a hill, a fertile or infertile illusion. But the trial and judgment of the soul of Prudence descending to meet him.

(p. 154)

Conformity to external social convention destroys Henry Tenby inwardly. Roi goes through the motions of the Ceremony of the Rock, “playing” himself as half-caste outsider. He does this, like Henry Tenby, “for the good of the tribe/family,” in the name of science, progress, the electrification of the Amazon. Roi's behavior is equivalent to that of Henry Tenby, who acts, he says, to “preserve the conservancies.” But the price Roi pays is to play the game in earnest—as Prudence, instead of Henry, must as well. They play “the game of history,” and it is a “dangerous game,” as Prudence retorts to Roi when she learns that he intends to participate in the Ceremony of the Rock. History, society, and psyche will not be mocked, and they cannot be escaped: In the words of another character named Comrade Block, spoken at Port Mourant, “History never repeats itself but it never outlasts itself either.”


  1. Hena Maes-Jelinek discusses other aspects of the important image of the Rock in Wilson Harris (New York: Twayne World Authors Series, 1982), p. 100; and Michael Gilkes considers the relation between the Rock and the Eye in Prudence's vision in Wilson Harris and the Caribbean Novel, esp. p. 125. Ivan van Sertima recognizes their import in titling his article “The Sleeping Rocks: Wilson Harris's Tumatumari” in Enigma of Values, edited by Kirsten H. Petersen and Anna Rutherford (Aarhus, Denmark: Dangaroo Press, 1975), p. 109. The Sleeping Rocks are explicitly associated with the figure of the Gorgon in classical mythology. Throughout Harris's writings—in his poetry and essays as well as his fiction—classical allusions occur. Poseidon in The Secret Ladder is a case in point, as are references in his volume of poems published in 1954, Eternity to Season. Harris recasts these themes and figures from classical mythology as he takes on the role of novelist instead of poet. They become important symbols and metaphors within an indigenous cultural tradition of América mestiza.

A. L. McLeod (review date summer 1988)

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SOURCE: McLeod, A. L. Review of The Infinite Rehearsal, by Wilson Harris. World Literature Today 62, no. 3 (summer 1988): 498–99.

[In the following positive review, McLeod describes The Infinite Rehearsal as an apparently simple yet deeply profound novella, asserting that it is “an allegorical political parable” that explores “the universal imagination.”]

Like Melville, Tolstoy, and Steinbeck, Wilson Harris has chosen the novella form for [The Infinite Rehearsal] one of his most profound yet apparently simple fictions. In the form of a fictional autobiography by Robin Redbreast Glass, Harris has written (in prose that at times becomes so surrealist as to verge on the opaque) an allegorical political parable concerning “the ceaseless rehearsal of the play of truth”—or “an infinite rehearsal of a play of the birth of history.” His concern is with the universal imagination and the essential nature of the spirit and of value.

Throughout his poetry, fictions, and essays, Harris has concerned himself with the problems of multiculturalism, change, and the complex processes of reinterpreting tradition; he has attempted to offer a radical methodology whereby postcolonial societies can create their own cultures through a return to myth, through nonlinear narrative, and through multivoiced viewpoints (see WLT 58:1, pp. 19–23). In many ways The Infinite Rehearsal comprises all of Harris's idiosyncratic approaches to narrative, exposition, and thematic development. As he comments, “Fiction is real when authors become unreal,” and some readers will find Harris's style decidedly unreal, as in these lines from the opening pages: “Thus it was that I welcomed Ghost, conquistadorial and victimized Ghose (was (s)he male/female? I could not tell) when IT appeared on a beach in Old New Forest (a lofty beach hovering somewhere within south and central Old New Forest) not far from where I earned a subsistence wage as a grave-digger in a library of dreams and a pork-knocker in the sacred wood.” Nonetheless, there are also the compensating aphorisms and apothegms that bejewel Harris's prose: “The cheaper life is, the greater the undervaluation of the mystery of life”; “The values of a civilization are an impossible dream.”

As the character W. H. observes to Robin Redbreast Glass, “Fiction reveals its truths, its genuine truths that bear on the reality of persons, the reality of the world, when fiction fictionalizes authors and characters alike. Thus is archetypal myth resurrected.” This, it seems, is the very basic belief of the novelist himself.

Guy Mannes-Abbott (review date 7 September 1990)

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SOURCE: Mannes-Abbott, Guy. “Post-Colonial Identity.” New Statesman & Society 3, no. 117 (7 September 1990): 46–47.

[In the following review, Mannes-Abbot offers a positive assessment of The Four Banks of the River of Space, noting that the novel “almost perfects the fabulism” of the first two novels in the Carnival trilogy.]

Wilson Harris has come to that stage in a writing life where The Four Banks is both a manifesto and exhibition of his poetic craft. If it lacks Zameenzad's sheer story-telling exuberance, it almost perfects the fabulism developed in the first two parts of this trilogy. Harris's alter ego is “Anselm,” and this is his book of dreams. In it, he wanders through history as a “living dreamer” to re-aquaint himself with his family past in Guyana. He “invokes them as live absences … they seem to paint one (as one paints them).” They become strategic “stepping stones” in the “abysses” left in his language, to approach a post-colonial identity.

Harris toys with his colonised tongue, lamenting the “thin word of my age.” He advocates focusing attention on “the crumb of the Word” to encounter the “unimaginable” in its tapestry. He makes gestural use of quantum physics to write of a “polyhistoric kind of being”; a lapse into occasionally choking self-reference.

The Four Banks is characteristically dense and yet Harris is also capable of the lightest touches. The commonplace image of a couple “making love in a room above a bombed garden in which a single rose bloomed” is a shock that demonstrates a deft and masterful lucidity.

Barbara J. Webb (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Webb, Barbara J. “The Myth of El Dorado: Los pasos perdidos and Palace of the Peacock.” In Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction: Alejo Carpentier, Wilson Harris, and Edouard Glissant, pp. 61–81. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Webb compares Palace of the Peacock with Alejo Carpentier's Los passos perdidos (The Lost Steps), observing that both novels depict a symbolic quest for cultural and personal identity within the context of Caribbean history.]

In Carpentier's Los pasos perdidos (The Lost Steps, 1953) and Harris's Palace of the Peacock (1960), Latin American and Caribbean history is the context of a search for cultural and personal identity. The basic similarity between Lost Steps and Palace is the evocation of the history of the European conquest and the search for gold in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is symbolically represented in the quest motif of the legend of El Dorado. The protagonists of both novels travel backward through time as they work their way upriver to the interior of a South American jungle. By means of this symbolic journey, Carpentier and Harris are able to interweave the modern theme of alienation with Western, Oriental, and native American mythology. The historical and mythical elements function quite differently, however, in the two novels.

In his study of mythopoesis, Harry Slochower points out that modern mythopoeic works tend to arise in periods of crisis or cultural transition, offering the writer a means of overcoming depersonalization and alienation.1 His definition of mythopoesis as the re-creation and transformation of the traditional patterns of myth is applicable to the literature of the colonial and postcolonial societies of the Caribbean. Among Caribbean writers the quest for origins—the central problem inscribed in myth—arises precisely when their societies are faced with the transition from the colonial past to independence. This transition is complicated by a multiple heritage that is often interpreted as a lack of tradition since it does not fit the mold of Old World patterns. The question of filiation thus becomes an issue of cultural legitimacy and authority.

Slochower's description of mythopoesis as “a drama in three acts, followed by an epilogue” is similar to Harris's concept of the novel as a “drama of consciousness.” In modern mythopoesis the state of communal harmony associated with paradise or the golden age of Genesis in traditional myth is only “a nostalgic memory.”2 For the Caribbean writer this is expressed as a longing for what Wilson Harris calls a “tribal past.”3 Given the multicultural heritage of the peoples of the Caribbean, the problem becomes which “tribal past”—the Amerindian, the African, or the European? On a more personal level, this problem may be expressed as the writer's longing for an initial state of harmony before a present condition of cultural alienation from his or her community.

According to Slochower, in modern mythopoesis the traditional pattern of the quest assumes the form of a challenge to the existing social order in which the protagonist—a hero of ambiguous status—must undergo a process of self-examination before becoming the “creative agent of his community”; and the protagonist's quest “points to a futuristic order which is envisaged as integrating the valuable residues of the past and present.”4 Among Caribbean writers this drama of consciousness is presented as a challenge to the social relationships determined by the history of the conquest and colonialism, and is a process in which the heroes or heroines must confront their own social and cultural alienation.5

In the modern mythopoeic work the reintegration of the protagonist (the homecoming) and the resolution of conflict is usually problematic, since historical reality precludes the “paradisiac finale” of traditional myth.6 The “victory” of consciousness must be reconquered over and over again, which accounts for the frequent recurrence of the quest theme not only in Caribbean literature but also in literature in general, even in those works that claim to be only about the writing process itself.

In most respects, Carpentier's and Harris's use of the mythical framework of a river journey toward the spiritual El Dorado of the interior follows Slochower's description of the process of mythopoesis and involves a revision of the pattern of separation, exile, and return in traditional myth. In Lost Steps and Palace of the Peacock, the legend of El Dorado functions as a link between the past and the present. By reenacting the quest for El Dorado, the protagonists of the two novels are able to lay claim to their personal and collective pasts, giving new meaning to their present. In Lost Steps, for example, the protagonist becomes absorbed in the mythical past one evening as he and his companions are sitting around a campfire on the periphery of the interior. While listening to the tales of the herbal doctor Montsalvatje, he recognizes the similarity between his journey and that of the original seekers of El Dorado:

We all felt an impulse to rise, set out, and arrive before the dawn at the gateway of enchantment. Again the waters of Lake Parima gleamed. Once more the towers of Manoa arose. The possibility that they might exist came alive anew, inasmuch as the myth persisted in the imagination of all those who lived in the vicinity of the jungle—that is to say, of the Unknown. And I could not help thinking that Adelantado, the Greek miners, the two rubbergatherers, and all those who each year made their way into the heart of its darkness after the rains, were, in fact, seeking El Dorado, like those who first followed the lure of its name.7

The musing narrator of Palace of the Peacock suggests a similar correspondence:

The map of the savannahs was a dream. The names Brazil and Guiana were colonial conventions I had known from childhood. I clung to them now as to a curious necessary stone and footing, even in my dream, the ground I knew I must not relinquish. They were an actual stage, a presence, however mythical they seemed to the universal and the spiritual eye. They were as close to me as my ribs, the rivers and the flatland, the mountains and the heartland I intimately saw. I could not help cherishing my symbolic map, and my bodily prejudice like a well-known room and house of superstition within which I dwelt. I saw this kingdom of man turned into a colony and battle ground of spirit, a priceless tempting jewel I dreamed I possessed.8

In parallel reinterpretations of the legend of El Dorado, the search for primitive instruments in Lost Steps and the pursuit of the Amerindians in Palace lead the protagonists to the “frontier of the known and the unknown,” toward a repossession of self in the heart of the rain forest.

A brief examination of the legend of El Dorado illustrates the interrelationship of myth and history in the consciousness of New World writers and reveals the complex symbolism associated with it. El Dorado is emblematic of the first encounter of the European and the Amerindian, the Old and the New World. Furthermore, this nexus of myth and history reveals how vision—the idealism of the quest—was corrupted by the realism of the conquest.

Irlemar Chiampi includes El Dorado as one of the five great legends of the New World.9 The mythical kingdom of El Dorado was thought to be located somewhere between the Amazon and Peru. The legend is said by some to have originated among the Chibcha Indians, who once a year anointed their king with oil and powdered him with gold dust, which he then washed off in a sacred lake, simultaneously throwing offerings of emeralds and gold into the waters. This ancient religious rite died out long before the arrival of the Europeans, but the legend of a land of gold and plenty lived on, giving impetus to a series of expeditions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.10

The most famous of these expeditions were carried out by the Spaniards Antonio de Berrio and Domingo de Vera and the Englishman Walter Raleigh. The English courtier and soldier of fortune made two voyages in search of the kingdom of El Dorado. The first expedition in 1595 took him some three hundred miles up the Orinoco River. His account of this voyage was published as The Discoverie of the lovlie, rich and beautiful Empyre of Guiana with a relation of the great city of Manoa (which the Spanyards call El Dorado), London, 1596. His second attempt to find the fabled City of Gold in 1617 brought him into conflict with the Spaniards, who were already established on the South American mainland, and this latter episode ultimately cost him his life.11

The return to the legend of El Dorado by writers as varied as Carpentier, Harris, and Naipaul indicates the persistent need of Caribbean writers to examine the origins of New World history and culture. The picture that emerges is a complex one fraught with contradictory signs. El Dorado is both a place and an object of desire; it is a symbol of paradise lost and utopia, a symbol of rupture and the promise of fulfillment. The search for fulfillment on both a material and a spiritual level and the promise of a new beginning in the “marvelous” landscape of the South American interior, however, involved a confrontation with its Amerindian inhabitants, who were alternately denigrated and idealized in the minds of the Europeans.

The dynamics of this initial encounter are at the root of the Caribbean writer's quest for cultural identity and a literary tradition to express it. Like the African slave, the Amerindian becomes the focus of a cultural dilemma; that is, the cultural alienation of the intellectual suspended in limbo between two worlds—the Amerindian or African paradise lost and the world of the European conquest. Many Caribbean writers have felt compelled to choose between the two, while some like Harris and Carpentier have sought an accommodation. But as Harris puts it, there is “no easy intercourse with tradition,”12 in this sense history and historical conflict. Thus rupture, alienation, and the desire for communion (the true object of the quest for identity) become the context of the debate over authenticity, convention, and innovation in artistic expression.

Wilson Harris alludes to the inherent duality of the legend of El Dorado (which he refers to as an “open myth”) and its relevance to the creative process in the following comment:

The religious and economic thirst for exploration was true of the Spanish conquistador, of the Portuguese, French, Dutch and English, of Raleigh, of Fawcett, as it is true of the black modern pork-knocker and pork-knocker of all races. An instinctive idealism associated with this adventure was overpowered within individual and collective by enormous greed, cruelty and exploitation. In fact it would have been very difficult a century ago to present these exploits as other than a very material and degrading hunger for wealth spiced by a kind of self-righteous spirituality. It is difficult enough today within clouds of prejudice and nihilism; nevertheless the substance of this adventure, involving men of all races, past and present conditions, has begun to acquire a residual pattern of illuminating correspondences. El Dorado, City of Gold, City of God, grotesque, unique coincidence, another window upon the Universe, another drunken boat, another ocean, another river; in terms of the novel the distribution of a frail moment of illuminating adjustments within a long succession and grotesque series of adventures, past and present, capable now of discovering themselves and continuing to discover themselves so that in one sense one relives and reverses the “given” conditions of the past, freeing oneself from catastrophic idolatry and blindness to one's own historical and philosophical conceptions and misconceptions which may bind one within a statuesque present or a false future.13

As Hena Maes-Jelinek points out the legend of El Dorado is frequently associated with the notion of creation.14 This relationship, however, is not limited to the creation of empire but includes the original sense of creation of the world (Genesis) and the creation of the word. The legend of El Dorado with its characteristic features of duality, transformation, and creation suggests the alchemical process that is the central metaphor in the mythopoeic structure of both The Lost Steps and Palace of the Peacock.

An aura of apocalypse dominates the opening pages of the two novels, where the fictional world, whether located in the savannahs of Guyana as in Palace or the streets of a modern North American city as in Lost Steps, is portrayed as a prison and “battleground of the spirit.” The alienation of the protagonists of the two novels is given different configurations, but both are fated to undertake a journey that becomes the retracing of lost steps on a historical and personal level.

In Palace of the Peacock the reader is immediately plunged into the hallucinatory world of the subconscious imagination. Time, place, character, and event are caught up in the flux of duality and metamorphosis. Whereas Carpentier's novel is firmly anchored in concrete reality, in Palace the objective world of historical or chronological time is barely recognizable. Through the language of the text itself, Harris achieves a fusion of past, present, and future, the simultaneity of dreamtime. As in the other novels of the Guiana Quartet, the primary reference is not the outer world but the subjective inner world.

Thus Palace opens with the narrator's prophetic dream about a horseman galloping along an open savannah road who is suddenly shot as if from nowhere. The horseman is his brother Donne, a modern counterpart of the European adventurer and conqueror, who exploits the indigenous population of Guyana in order to cultivate his rice and cattle estate.15 Because of Donne's cruelty, his Amerindian work force has fled into the jungle.

Donne sees himself as the all-powerful sovereign of the savannahs. He arrogantly boasts: “Life here is tough. One has to be a devil to survive. I'm the last landlord. I tell you I fight everything in nature, flood, drought, chicken hawk, rat, beast, and woman. I'm everything. Midwife, yes, doctor, yes, gaoler, judge, hangman, every blasted thing to the labouring people” (Palace 17). Assuming the role of conqueror and colonizer, his motto is “Rule the land … And you rule the world” (Palace 19). He rationalizes his harsh treatment of the Amerindian folk in the name of “balance and perspective,” since he considers them primitive, untrustworthy, and irresponsible and their flight a deliberate attempt to thwart his “right” to exploit the land.

Yet, as brutal and contemptuous as Donne is toward the Amerindians, Harris does not cast him in a rigid mold. The narrator, for example, recognizes Donne as the other half of his divided self: “I felt my heart come into my mouth with a sense of recognition and fear. Apart from this fleeting wishful resemblance it suddenly seemed to me I had never known Donne in the past—his face was a dead blank. I saw him now for the first faceless time as the captain and unnatural soul of heaven's dream; he was myself standing outside of me while I stood inside of him” (Palace 23). Donne and his brother, the Dreamer, are split-off fragments of each other's personality, representing the outer material self and the inner spiritual self. Furthermore, as Michael Gilkes suggests, they are like “the brothers of Greek mythology, Thanatos (‘dead’ historical time) and Hypnos (‘living’ mythological time).”16 This interpretation of the relationship between Donne and the Dreamer fits Harris's concept of history as “a static clock that crushes all into the time of the conquest,”17 as opposed to the liberating effect of the “intuitive logic” associated with myth and the subconscious. In Palace the erosion of absolute categories of reality applies to the representation of character as well as the “facts” of history.

The principle of duality, seen in the contrasting figures of the two brothers, is extended to all levels of the narrative. Donne's alienation is estrangement from self as well as estrangement from those he seeks to rule. In his brother's dream he is ambushed and killed by his Amerindian mistress Mariella, who is referred to as his muse and phantom, his victim and executioner. Mariella bears the name of the mission above the falls in the rain forest where her people have fled. The Dreamer identifies her with the lost innocence of Donne's first journey into the interior and the “immortal chase of love” (Palace 31). Mariella therefore represents, like the legend of El Dorado, the latent capacity for fulfillment in Donne's pursuit of the Amerindians.18

In contrast to the seemingly barren, isolated savannahs of Donne's would-be “kingdom and republic,” emptied of the particulars of time and place, the opening pages of Lost Steps is set in the urban labyrinth of a modern metropolis. The city is a concrete jungle where seasons “leave no memory.” Unlike Palace, the juxtaposition of Thanatos and Hypnos in Lost Steps is not based on the direct representation of a hallucinatory dream world. The disorientation in space and time presented in the first pages of the novel stem from the narrator-protagonist's sense of being trapped in a dead present, as the epigraph from Deuteronomy suggests. He is a contemporary Sisyphus, condemned to live in a claustrophobic, oppressive world:

There were gaps of weeks in the chronicle of my existence, seasons that left with me no real memory, no unusual sensation, no enduring emotion; days when every gesture left me with the obsession that I had done the same thing before under identical circumstances—that I had been sitting in the same corner, that I had been telling the same story, looking at the schooner imprisoned in the glass of a paperweight. … Ascending and descending the hill of days, with the same stone on my back, I kept going through a momentum acquired in jerks and spasms.

(Lost Steps 19–20)

He lives a modern life of anonymity, bearing the weight of historical time, which marks a steady rhythm of decay. In this age of paradise lost, he is even deprived of the heroism of selling his soul to the devil; he is instead a slave to the Bookkeeper and the Galley Master. Whereas in Palace the theme of alienation is given an archetypal significance (the divided self as the human condition in all ages), the alienation of the protagonist of Lost Steps is presented as the immediate result of a civilization ruled by technology and the demands of a consumer society.

Furthermore, the protagonist of Carpentier's autobiographical novel is a Latin American artist-intellectual cut off from his cultural roots and the ideals of his youth. Like Donne, Carpentier's protagonist has a double, but he is conscious that his alter ego resides within himself as judge of his unfulfilled aspirations: “Between the I that was and the I that I might have been the dark abyss of the lost years gaped. We lived together in one body, he and I, upheld by a secret architecture that was already—in our life, in our flesh—the presence of our death” (Lost Steps 30). Where the ruthless Donne sees himself as the captain of his own destiny, the protagonist of Lost Steps sees himself as the pawn of historical circumstance. He left his native country at an early age for North America with his European father, who indoctrinated him with the idea that the so-called New World was “a hemisphere without history, alien to the great Mediterranean traditions, a land of Indians and Negroes peopled by the offscourings of the great nations of Europe” (Lost Steps 83). Contrary to his father's teachings, when the protagonist arrives in Europe on the eve of World War II, instead of finding common laborers listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, he witnesses the parade of young “philosophers” goose-stepping to the tune of Fascism. Bitterly disillusioned by the European “Dance of Death,” he loses all faith in humanity and the power of “great” art.

After the war, he returns to the North American city of his adolescence, where he drifts into the drudgery of a routine existence writing musical scores for commercial films, “chained to [his] technique among clocks, chronographs, and metronomes in windowless, artificially lighted rooms lined with felt and soundproofed” (Lost Steps 20). The specter of Goya's Cronos dominates his daily life. Bored with his marriage, friends, and work, he expresses nostalgia for a lost sense of unity when he wonders whether in the past other men had longed for certain ways of living that had disappeared forever.

A chance encounter with a former teacher, the elderly curator of a museum of organography, offers Carpentier's protagonist an opportunity to escape his routine existence. This father figure reminds him of his past work as a musicologist investigating the origins of primitive music. Reluctantly, the protagonist agrees to go on an expedition in the jungles of Venezuela in search of primitive instruments for the museum collection. The journey toward self in both Lost Steps and Palace thus involves a return to the aboriginal past, the creative reestablishment of the “first time” of Genesis in the privileged space of the rain forest.

In the initial stages of the journey in both novels, the protagonists arrive at a real and symbolic place where they begin to let go of their “death-in-life” existence: the Mission of Mariella in Palace and the anonymous South American capital in Lost Steps. For the protagonist of Carpentier's novel, the sights, sounds, and smells of the tropical city begin to awaken memories of his forgotten past. At first he regrets having undertaken the trip and feels uncomfortable away from his familiar though alienating environment. His journey, however, is a dual process of separation and return, which he immediately experiences as a reencounter with the language of his childhood: “A strange voluptuousness was lulling my scruples. And a force was slowly invading me through my ears, my pores: the language. Here once more was the language I had talked in my infancy; the language in which I had learned to read and sol-fa; the language that had grown rusty with disuse, thrown aside like a useless instrument in a country where it was of no value to me” (Lost Steps 45).

Within the mythopoeic structure of Lost Steps, memory is linked to the recovery of original language. Memory and language as manifestations of psychic awareness are therefore emphasized throughout the first stages of the journey. Beginning with the protagonist's arrival in his native country, written language is given special significance, since the unfolding of consciousness is presented in the form of journal entries. Furthermore, since language is associated with the verbal expression of cultural identity, Carpentier uses the first stages of the journey to contrast, as he does in so much of his writing, the decadence of European civilization with the vitality of the Americas.

The conflict between European and American culture is outwardly represented by the two women Mouche and Rosario. Mouche, the protagonist's French mistress who accompanies him on the trip, is a cosmopolitan pseudo-intellectual who begins to deteriorate in the natural environment of the tropics. On the other hand, the Indian woman Rosario is described as “a living sum of the races,” a woman of the land who lives in a perpetual present in easy communion with nature. When the protagonist reaches the next stage of his journey, he will abandon Mouche and take up a new life with Rosario, symbolically leaving behind the existential burden of history and the alienation of modern European civilization for a simpler, more spontaneous life outside of chronological time.

In the same way that memory breaks through the surface of the protagonist's consciousness to uncover original language, the nearby jungle threatens to reclaim the urban landscape of the South American capital. Roots of tropical vegetation push up through cracks in sidewalks and buildings, undermining the city's facade of modernity and progress:

Something like a baleful pollen in the air—a ghost pollen, impalpable rot, enveloping decay—suddenly became active with mysterious design, opening what was closed, closing what was open, upsetting calculations, contradicting specific gravity, making guarantees worthless. One morning the ampoules of serum in a hospital were found to be full of mold; precision instruments were not registering correctly; certain liquors began to bubble in the bottle; the Rubens National Museum was attacked by an unknown parasite immune to sprays.

(Lost Steps 43–44)

The local explanation for nature's defiance of civilization is the theory of the Worm, the return of the repressed: “Nobody had ever seen the Worm. But the Worm existed, carrying on its arts of confusion, turning up when least expected to confound the most tried and trusted experience” (Lost Steps 44).

When a revolution breaks out shortly after his arrival, the protagonist is just as mystified about the cause of the political violence as the foreigners in his hotel who bemoan the fate of these mestizo countries always on the verge of chaos. But he recognizes the conflict between the conservatives and radicals as a “chronological discrepancy of ideals,” as if the warring sides were living in different centuries or, as a local lawyer puts it, within the tradition of a people accustomed to living with the conflicting ideals of Rousseau, the Inquisition, the Immaculate Conception, and Das Kapital (Lost Steps 53).

Despite the political upheaval, the protagonist's return to his native country has a salutary effect on his mind and spirit. For the first time in years, he is able to sleep through the night without the aid of eye mask or drugs. But the renewed contact with the world of his childhood also leads to a sense of distance from his French mistress, who seems bored and unable to respond spontaneously to the new environment. He begins to see her as a burden associated with the life he had hoped to escape.

It is during a short trip outside the capital in the provincial town of Los Altos that he begins to understand the true source of his alienation. He meets three young artists—a black painter, an Indian poet, and a white musician—whom he disdainfully refers to as the Three Magi because of their eager attention to his mistress, who enthralls them with anecdotes about Paris and the latest developments in the European avant-garde. Infuriated by their reverence for European culture and their total indifference to the history and traditions of their own country, he recognizes in these young men the false direction of his own youth:

That night as I looked at them I could see the harm my uprooting from this environment, which had been mine until adolescence, had done me; the share the facile bedazzlement of the members of my generation, carried away by theories into the same intellectual labyrinths, devoured by the same Minotaurs, had had in disorienting me. I was weary of dragging the chain of certain ideas, and I felt a lurking desire to say something that was not the daily cliché of all who considered themselves au courant with things that fifteen years from now would be contemptuously cast aside.

(Lost Steps 71)

At one time these discussions had amused him, but here in the natural environment of the tropics, he finds this empty talk of European theories of art unbearable. The contrast between the local folk art and the “false mysteries” of the European avant-garde awakens in him a renewed sense of purpose and direction. His stay in the capital and Los Altos puts him in touch with his earliest memories, the period from childhood to adolescence before his condition of cultural exile, and prepares him for the journey beyond Los Altos into the interior.

This journey is divided into four major episodes in which Carpentier establishes a metaphorical relationship between landscape and history: La Sierra, El Valle de las Llamas, las Tierras del Caballo, and las Tierras del Perro. At each of these places, the protagonist meets a member of the crew that will accompany him on the journey to the interior: the Indian woman Rosario, the diamond hunter Yannes, the missionary Fray Pedro de Henostras, the adventurer El Adelantado, and finally the herbalist and storyteller who perpetuates the legend of El Dorado, Montsalvatje.19 On a historical level these figures are associated with the European conquest. Rosario, however, is linked to the pre-Columbian past and New World cultural synthesis.

Carpentier's protagonist travels first by bus over the Andes and then by riverboat through colonial towns, remote villages, and primitive settlements along the banks of the Orinoco. He observes that the simultaneity of past, present, and future time is not mere poetic fantasy in South America but an actual experience of everyday life:

The years are subtracted, melt away, vanish, in the dizzying backward flight of time. We have not yet come to the sixteenth century. It is much earlier. We are in the Middle Ages. For it is not the man of the Renaissance who carried out the Discovery and the Conquest, but medieval man. … When behold, this past had suddenly become the present. I could touch and breathe it. I now saw the breathtaking possibility of traveling in time, as others travel in space.

(Lost Steps 57–58)

The protagonist's journey is thus a voyage backward through the historical stages of human development to the beginning of time, but it is above all a flight from the modern world toward nature.20 The principal figure in Lost Steps associated with nature is Rosario. The protagonist first encounters her on a mountain road on the bus trip beyond Los Altos. He soon recognizes this mujer de la tierra as a medium through whom “plants began to speak and describe their own powers” (Lost Steps 80).

As the protagonist and his companions get closer to the boundaries of the rain forest, he feels more drawn to Rosario, and more distant toward his mistress Mouche, who seems increasingly alien, incapable of establishing any relationship between herself and her surroundings. Together Mouche and Rosario, like Mariella in Palace, represent the dual aspects of the protagonist's unconscious. They are contrasting images of the spiritual death of the artificial world he has left behind and the regenerative powers of the natural world he is about to enter. While Mouche is the personification of the separation between nature and culture characteristic of modernity, Rosario represents the connection to a lost sense of unity, the fusion of history and nature.21

Before the protagonist can be initiated into the “marvelous” realm of the rain forest, he must relinquish his ties with Mouche.22 The forces of nature aid him in achieving this separation. Mouche violates the moral code of her new environment when she makes sexual advances toward Rosario. Outraged by this offense, Rosario pummels her with a stick, literally shattering the French woman's mask of modernity. Mouche is then stricken with malaria, a final defeat that the protagonist sees as “un ejemplar desquite de lo cabal y lo auténtico”—the perfect revenge of the authentic on the false (Lost Steps 134). Since it is obvious that Mouche is not fit for the adventure that awaits the protagonist, the herbalist Montsalvatje volunteers to take her back downriver where she can regain her health in comfort. The protagonist is now free to continue his journey with Rosario and the other members of the crew.

While the symbolism of the fictional characters in Lost Steps is obvious, the characters in Palace are more elusive since they are presented in the narrative as a montage of shifting images and perspectives. Likewise, compared to Lost Steps, the narrative structure of Palace seems diffuse and random. Rather than plot as such, the novel develops in a series of psychic illuminations.23 As we saw in the The Secret Ladder, Harris conceives of his characters as “agents of personality” rather than representations of individual consciousness.24

The only thing we know for certain about the characters in Palace is that they have joined the violent taskmaster Donne in the pursuit of his rebellious Amerindian laborers. Bits and pieces of their racial and social background are revealed in the course of the journey more as a means of showing how they are all bound together in the same “repetitive boat and prison of life” than to highlight the individual differences among them. They are motivated by inexplicable presentiments and a nebulous desire for personal fulfillment that operates on a primarily subconscious level.

When Donne and his crew arrive at the Mission of Mariella in their guise as modern-day conquistadors, the Amerindians quickly flee from their homes into the surrounding jungle. The atmosphere of the abandoned settlement exerts a strange power over the racially mixed crew, who are all escapees from modern civilization seeking refuge in the bush from their personal failures. In the hallucinatory landscape of the rain forest, they begin to unearth the “grave of memory,” reflecting on the frustrations and lack of fulfillment in their past lives. We learn, for example, that Cameron, the great-grandson of a Scottish adventurer and an African slave, has spent his life searching for “space and freedom to use his own hands in order to make his own primitive home and kingdom on earth” (Palace 42).

In the depths of the rain forest even Donne begins to shed his mask of stoicism and cruelty. He admits to treating the Amerindians harshly and expresses a desire to establish a different relationship with them. Ultimately, however, he decides to act in his own interest—to continue the pursuit and to force them back to his land. When he returns to camp one morning, accompanied by an old Arawak woman he has taken prisoner, his brother the Dreamer has an intuition of tragedy, which he describes as “an undigested morsel of recollection [that] erased all present waking sensation and evoked a future time, petrifying and painful, confused and unjust” (Palace 54). This “memory” of the future is experienced by the other members of the crew as well;25 they all feel drawn together in their “inverse craft” toward some new beginning. We discover that they all bear the names of a famous crew that had drowned on a similar expedition. The journey to Mariella will lead them to their second death, which becomes their spiritual rebirth.

When Donne and his crew set off again in search of the folk, they take the old Arawak woman as their guide. Her presence recalls the history of the conquest, but since Harris rejects any interpretation of history that consolidates the victor/victim conflict, she is portrayed as the “ancestral embroidery and obsession” of the crew, the longing for fulfillment of all races of men in all ages:

Her race was a vanishing one overpowered by the fantasy of a Catholic as well as a Protestant invasion. This cross she had forgotten in an earlier dream of distant centuries and a returning to the Siberian unconscious pilgrimage in the straits where life had possessed and abandoned at the same time the apprehension of a facile beginning and ending. An unearthly pointlessness was her true manner, and an all-inclusive manner that still contrived to be—as a duck sheds water from its wings—the negation of every threat of conquest and fear—every shade of persecution wherein was drawn and mingled the pursued and the pursuer alike, separate and yet one and the same person.

(Palace 72)

As Donne and his men struggle against hazardous river rapids, the disturbing presence of the old woman seems to merge with the churning waters, luring them to their deaths:

The sudden dreaming fury of the stream was naught else but the ancient spit of all flying insolence in the voiceless and terrible humility of the folk. Tiny embroideries resembling the handwork of the Arawak woman's kerchief and the wrinkles on her brow turned to incredible and fast soundless breakers of foam. Her crumpled bosom and river grew agitated with desire, bottling and shaking every fear and inhibition and outcry. The ruffles in the water were her dress rolling and rising to embrace the crew. This sudden insolence of soul rose and caught them from the powder of her eyes and the age of her smile and the dust in her hair all flowing back upon them with silent streaming majesty and abnormal youth and in a wave of freedom and strength.

(Palace 73)

Hena Maes-Jelinek interprets the youthful transformation of the old Arawak woman as the symbolic reincarnation of Donne's muse and executioner, Mariella.26 In her role as spiritual guide and primordial mother, similar to that of the Indian woman Rosario in Lost Steps, she leads the crew through the “straits of memory” toward a renewal of consciousness:

The crew were transformed by the awesome spectacle of a voiceless soundless motion, the purest appearance of vision in the chaos of emotional sense. Earthquake and volcanic water appeared to seize them and stop their ears dashing the scales only from their eyes. They saw the naked unequivocal flowing peril and beauty and soul of the pursuer and the pursued all together, and they knew they would perish if they dreamed to turn back.

(Palace 73)

This descent into the “complex womb” of history and nature signals the beginning of the trials of initiation of the final stage of the journey, which takes seven days—a paradoxical reversal of the seven days of Creation during which time each crew member meets his death.27 The first to lose his life in the raging river rapids is Carroll, the youngest member of the crew. We learn of old Schomburgh's guilt-ridden relationship to Carroll, who is both his son and nephew. In his youth Schomburgh had fallen in love with Carroll's mother; he later discovered that she was his half-sister. The young woman married another man while Carroll was still an infant but refused to give her son the husband's name. The illegitimacy, incest, and racial mestizaje that characterize Carroll's family history are symbolic of Guyanese social history: “Who and what was Carroll? Schomburgh had glimpsed … the embodiment of hate and love, the ambiguity of everyone and no-one. He had recognized his true son, nameless out of shame and yet named with a new distant name by a muse and a mother to make others equally nameless out of mythical shame and a name, and to forge for their descendants new mythical farflung relationships out of their nameless shame and fear” (Palace 83).

Carroll's condition of namelessness indicates the role of origins and cultural identity in the quest. Donne's name is thought to possess “a cruel glory,” the emblem of power and command. The young Carroll's death, however, is a baptism in the nameless community of spirit that transcends “every material mask and label and economic form”—the ultimate object of the quest. As the riverboat forges ahead toward the waterfalls above the Mission of Mariella and each successive crew member dies, it is in their “second death” that they overcome their inner conflicts, achieving self-knowledge and spiritual wholeness:

Now [Donne] knew for the first time the fetishes he and his companions embraced. They were bound together in wishful substance and in the very enormity of a dreaming enmity and opposition and self-destruction. Remove all this or weaken its appearance and its cruelty and they were finished. So Donne had died in the death of Wishrop; Jenning's primitive abstraction and slackening will was a reflection of the death of Cameron; Schomburgh had died with Carroll. And da Silva saw with dread his own sogging fool's life on the threshold of the ultimate stab of discredit like one who had adventured and lived on scraps of vulgar intention and detection and rumour that passed for the arrest of spiritual myth and the rediscovery of a new life in the folk.

(Palace 123)

Donne and the other members of the crew—all aspects of a fragmented psyche—are reunited in the apotheosis of the seventh day of their journey beyond Mariella. Freed from their worldly illusions, one by one they climb up the ladders of a radiant waterfall until they reach the “Palace of the Peacock,” the City of Gold, where all principles of opposition cease. The narrating I, now speaking as one for Donne and the Dreamer, merges in ecstatic harmony with the universe:

One was what I am in the music—buoyed and supported above dreams by the undivided soul and anima in the universe from whom the word of dance and recreation first came, the command to the starred peacock who was instantly transported to know and to hug to himself his true invisible otherness and opposition, his true alien spiritual love without cruelty and confusion in the blindness and frustration of desire. It was the dance of all fulfillment I now held and knew deeply, cancelling my forgotten fear of strangeness and catastrophe in a destitute world.

(Palace 152)

The protagonist transcends the finite existence of historical time and enters a timeless mystical sphere.28 The search for the primitive folk in Palace of the Peacock thus becomes a search for the mythical paradise of union with the cosmos—a timeless place of supreme liberation.

In Lost Steps the protagonist is allowed no such mystical transcendence. Determined to overcome the cultural barrier that separates him from Rosario and the indigenous people of the interior, he undertakes the final stage of his river journey into the “alchemical laboratory” of the rain forest: “Everything here seemed something else, thus creating a world of appearances that concealed reality, casting doubt on many truths. … The jungle is the world of deceit, subterfuge, duplicity; everything there is disguise, stratagem, artifice, metamorphosis” (Lost Steps 147).

As the protagonist and his companions break away from the banks of civilization and historical time, the river seems to lead them back to the mythical time of Genesis. First, however, they must pass through treacherous river rapids, evoking—as in Palace of the Peacock—the trials of Ulysses' crew. Fearing for his life, the protagonist clings to Rosario who seems surprisingly calm and unafraid. They finally reach Santa Monica de los Venados in “The Valley Where Time Had Stopped,” a primitive settlement forged out of the adventurer El Adelantado's desire for a “kingdom on earth.” Reminiscent of Cameron in Palace, El Adelantado explains how he gave up his search for gold and founded Santa Monica because he was now “much more interested in the land and in the power of decreeing its laws” (Lost Steps 170).

Upon taking up his new life with Rosario in Santa Monica, the protagonist loses all sense of chronological time and becomes un hombre físico, a natural man, who learns to walk to the rhythm of the universe. Little cracks, however, begin to appear in his vision of an earthly paradise. Santa Monica is neither the Garden of Eden nor Manoa, the City of Gold. He finds that as El Adelantado had warned him, “Creation is no laughing matter” (Lost Steps 171).

There are times of disease and hunger, and even moments of brutality and violence. For example, when a leper violates one of the children of the settlement, the inhabitants demand his death. El Adelantado's son Marcos takes the protagonist with him in search of the offender. But when they find him, the protagonist cannot assume the role of executioner. He realizes that from the moment he pulled the trigger, “something would be changed forever. There are some acts that throw up walls, markers, limits in a man's existence” (Lost Steps 200). This confrontation with the harsh reality of historical circumstance anticipates the conclusion of the protagonist's adventure in The Valley Where Time Had Stopped.29

During a long and boring rainy period, the protagonist is overcome with a desire to write music. Far away from concert halls and artistic controversies, his sojourn in paradise has unlocked his creative powers, but he lacks the simplest tools to make use of them, such as pen and paper. Moreover, he realizes that art must have an audience and thus belongs to the world he has left behind.

While he is struggling to come to terms with this new kind of frustration, a search plane lands in the jungle clearing. When he learns that the men in the plane have been sent by his wife to rescue him from some imagined danger, he feels compelled to return to civilization if only to settle his personal affairs and obtain the materials he needs to carry out his work. Like the men of Ulysses' crew in the land of the lotus eaters, he is snatched from his mythical paradise.

Although he is determined to return, he finds that it is impossible to repeat the miracle, to “desandar lo andado.” When he tries to get back to Santa Monica six months later, he is unable to locate the narrow jungle passage that leads to El Adelantado's settlement because the river is too high. Moreover, he discovers that Rosario has taken up with another man. His hope of regaining his mythical existence is lost forever. Finally, he realizes that as an artist, unlike Rosario and the indigenous people of Santa Monica, he cannot escape history, “because the only human race to which it is forbidden to sever the bonds of time is the race of those who create art, and who not only must move ahead of the immediate yesterday, represented by tangible witness, but must anticipate the song and the form of others who will follow them, creating new tangible witness with full awareness of what has been done up to the moment” (Lost Steps 238–39).

Where in Palace of the Peacock Wilson Harris sees myth and its variable art as a means of reversing the “given conditions of the past,” in Lost Steps Carpentier concludes that history is inescapable. As a point of departure, both Harris and Carpentier use myth as a means of refuting the notion of a historyless, cultureless Caribbean and Latin America, but for Harris myth or the mythic imagination is tantamount to deliverance from the alienating effects of the historical process. In Lost Steps, however, Carpentier suggests the abolition of historical time and participation in mythic time as an alternative to the Sisyphus syndrome of modern life, only to deny this as a real possibility at the end of the novel.

According to Roberto González Echevarría, the protagonist's journey in Lost Steps is a “failed quest” since he is unable either to complete his musical score in Santa Monica or to establish a lasting relationship with Rosario. Echevarría thus concludes that “there is no genesis in the novel, only repetitions, rediscoveries and falsifications.”30 There is indeed a process of demystification at work in Lost Steps; the protagonist must give up his romantic notions of an earthly paradise. There is also, however, a genesis of consciousness; at the end of the journey, the protagonist understands the nature of his alienation in a cultural sense as well as in broader existential terms. Furthermore, he arrives at an important understanding of the creative process. For as Harry Slochower points out, the mythopoeic work precludes the possibility of absolute transcendence; the quest “is not eliminated but assimilated.”31

In The Lost Steps and Palace of the Peacock Carpentier and Harris pose similar questions about art and the creative process. It is in the creative space of the Venezuelan rain forest that the protagonist of Lost Steps revises his theory of the origin of music as the imitation of nature; his experience with the indigenous people of the interior convinces him that music originated in magic. Although Carpentier concludes that the modern writer cannot regain the mythical El Dorado where “history and fable are one,” like Harris he believes that the novelist must go beyond a mere imitation of reality toward a creative, magical conception of art as symbolic form.


  1. See Slochower's study of myth in modern literature, Mythopoesis, p. 15.

  2. Slochower, Mythopoesis, pp. 22–23.

  3. Glissant calls this longing for a primordial past le désiré historique in Discours antillais, pp. 147–50.

  4. Slochower, Mythopoesis, pp. 22, 34. In Caribbean literature the journey is often undertaken by an intellectual or an adolescent (as can be seen in the large number of novels that deal with growing up in a colonial society); both the intellectual and the adolescent have ambiguous status in a quite literal sense.

  5. More often than not the journeying protagonist in Caribbean literature (as is generally the case in other literatures also) is male. The quest of female protagonists in novels by both men and women usually takes place within the family or her own society. A notable exception is the female protagonist of Maryse Condé's Heremakhonon (1976), who leaves her island home for Africa.

  6. Slochower, Mythopoesis, pp. 24–25.

  7. Carpentier, Lost Steps, pp. 130–31. All further references to this text are cited in parentheses.

  8. Wilson Harris, Palace of the Peacock (1960; London: Faber and Faber, 1968), p. 20. All further references to this text are cited in parentheses.

  9. Chiampi, O realismo maravilhoso, p. 100.

  10. Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi, The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (New York: Macmillan, 1980), pp. 108–9.

  11. Since this encounter jeopardized an already precarious relationship between England and Spain, Sir Walter Raleigh's rival at the English court, the Earl of Essex, used it as an excuse to have the New World adventurer executed on charges of treason in 1617. See Naipaul's account of the Spanish and English expeditions in search of the City of Gold in The Loss of El Dorado (1969).

  12. Ian Munro and Reinhard Sander, eds., “Interview with Wilson Harris,” Kas-Kas (Austin: African and Afro-American Research Institute, University of Texas, 1972), p. 45.

  13. Harris, “Tradition and the West Indian Novel,” Tradition, the Writer and Society (London: New Beacon Publications, 1967), pp. 35–36.

  14. See Hena Maes-Jelinek, “The Myth of El Dorado in the Caribbean Novel,” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 6 (June 1971): 117.

  15. Kenneth Ramchand discusses the parallels between Palace and the history of the conquest in the Preface to Palace, p. 7; and in Wilson Harris and the Modern Tradition (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986), Sandra Drake relates the themes of conquest and desire in Palace to poststructuralist theories of language and identity, pp. 49–89.

  16. Gilkes, Wilson Harris, p. 28.

  17. Harris, “History, Fable and Myth,” p. 28.

  18. See Maes-Jelinek's discussion of Mariella as a “double-natured muse” within the framework of Harris's concept of the “novel of associations,” The Naked Design: A Reading of “Palace of the Peacock” (University of Aarhus, Denmark: Dangaroo Press, 1976), pp. 21, 23.

  19. See E. R. Skinner's Jungian interpretation of the journey in Lost Steps in Archetypal Patterns in Four Novels of Alejo Carpentier (Ph.D. diss., University of Kansas, 1969), pp. 113, 137.

  20. The protagonist's journey is similar to the Romantics' quest for a reunion with nature as a means of achieving authenticity in art. The relationship between nature and the creative impulse is suggested throughout the initial stages of the journey, and most explicitly in the Los Altos episode where the proximity to nature first reawakens in the protagonist a strong urge to write (Lost Steps, p. 72). See also González Echevarría on the relationship between romanticism and the quest in Lost Steps in The Pilgrim, p. 160.

  21. Though Mouche represents those modernist notions that the protagonist supposedly rejects, the symbolism of Rosario as the link to nature, the unconscious, and the creative impulse remains within the modernist poetics of the European avant-garde. See Ferdinand Alquié on the symbolism of the woman among the surrealists in The Philosophy of Surrealism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), pp. 84–96. Both women are projections of the protagonist's own desires and inner conflicts. Ultimately, however, Rosario doesn't live up to her role as exemplary “earth mother.”

  22. See Skinner, Archetypal Patterns, p. 114.

  23. Maes-Jelinek refers to this as “moments of intensity,” The Naked Design, p. 25.

  24. See Munro and Sander, Kas-Kas, p. 52. Also note that in Palace there is a merging of consciousness among the characters of the novel, unlike the externalized forms of the inner conflict that Roberto González Echevarría recognizes in Lost Steps as the “unfolding of the protagonist into several selves that comment upon each other,” The Pilgrim, pp. 165–66.

  25. The protagonist of Lost Steps encounters a local tavern with the name “Los Recuerdos del Porvenir” (Memories of the future) in Puerto de Anunciación, the last frontier town he stops at before entering the unknown depths of the rain forest (Lost Steps, p. 116).

  26. Maes-Jelinek, Naked Design, pp. 34, 35.

  27. Carpentier uses a similar time frame in Lost Steps. The journey beyond Los Altos to the threshold of the rain forest takes seven days as does the river journey through the rain forest to El Adelantado's settlement. For a discussion of the calendar symbolism in Lost Steps, see González Echevarría, The Pilgrim, pp. 183–86.

  28. In Harris's work, myth and the mythic imagination are closely related to the hermetic arts and mysticism because of their common emphasis on opposites and the transformation of ordinary reality by essentially nonrational means. See Harris on the cauda pavonis as a symbol of fulfillment in “History, Fable and Myth,” p. 20, and Michael Gilkes on the alchemical symbolism of the seven-day journey in Wilson Harris and the Caribbean Novel, pp. 36–37.

  29. According to Ariel Dorfman's interpretation of this episode, the protagonist of Lost Steps is faced with a dilemma. If he kills the leper, he knows he will destroy his notion of paradise and initiate the violence of historical reality. Yet if he does not kill the leper, he will fail to live by the laws of El Adelantado's community and must be expelled from the paradise that he is unable to defend. See Imaginación y violencia en América (Santiago de Chile: Editorial Universitaria, 1970), pp. 105, 106.

  30. González Echevarría, The Pilgrim, p. 167. In this regard, González Echevarría sees the failure of the quest in Lost Steps as evidence of a break in the development of Carpentier's fiction, one that denies the basic premises of the 1949 prologue to The Kingdom of This World and subverts the metaphor of “nature as logos” (The Pilgrim, pp. 19, 153–54, 211). At the same time, González Echevarría maintains that this new direction in Carpentier's fiction represents a rehabilitation of the latter's surrealist past, that is, the “ludic and revolutionary spirit” of the avant-garde (The Pilgrim, p. 213). Yet it should be noted that language as a return to nature was also an important aspect of surrealist art. See Octavio Paz on the relationship between language and nature in surrealist poetics in “André Breton or the Quest of the Beginning,” Alternating Current, trans. Helen R. Lane (New York: Viking, 1973), pp. 47–59. More important, as Edouard Glissant points out in his discussion of the longing for origins, le désiré historique, in the literature of the Americas, the most crucial aspect of the search for origins is the process itself, le questionnement, the searching or quest(ion)ing. In Los pasos the return is impossible; it fails but, as Glissant says, its failure is meaningful (Discours antillais, p. 149).

  31. Slochower, Mythopoesis, p. 25. Although Palace of the Peacock illustrates the ultimate power of the word to transform reality, Harris's later works reflect the problematical nature of transcendence, as we have already seen in The Secret Ladder, for example. In her discussion of the theme of transcendence in Palace, Maes-Jelinek cites Harris's novel Heartland (London, 1964): “The Golden Age they wished to find—The Palace of the Peacock—may never have existed for all they knew,” The Naked Design, pp. 61, 64 n. 30.

Barbara J. Webb (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Webb, Barbara J. “The Poetics of Identity and Difference: Black Marsden and Concierto barroco.” In Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction: Alejo Carpentier, Wilson Harris, and Edouard Glissant, pp. 129–48. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Webb compares Black Marsden with Alejo Carpentier's Concierto barroco, arguing that both novels narrate a journey in which “the protagonists confront questions of personal identity and the relationship between art and reality.”]

The ludic conception of the novel, the play of language, form, and ideas in what Harris calls the “Conception of the Game,” is the context of the reexamination of writing, history, and cultural identity in Harris's Black Marsden (1972) and Carpentier's Concierto barroco (1974). The ludic elements in these two later novels are humor, parody, and above all the self-referentiality of the texts. Theater and carnival are the common paradigms for Harris's and Carpentier's experiments with novelistic form in the two works. Both writers emphasize the act of writing as improvisation and role playing; but their aim, like that of the carnival masque, is to overthrow all notions of cultural domination in order to achieve an open-ended vision of fiction and reality.

In these two novels the journey is the inverse route of the conquest, the return to the Old World where the protagonists encounter unexpected cultural parallels and arrive at a new understanding of personal identity. Black Marsden is the story of Clive Goodrich, a native of South America, who now resides in Scotland after winning a fortune gambling in the football pools. He becomes the wealthy patron of a group of derelict artists who turn his home into a “tabula rasa” theater, which is related to Harris's concept of art as the transformation of a blank tablet or the void. Carpentier's novel, which takes place in both the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, relates the journey of a wealthy Mexican and his Cuban servant to Europe, where they have an extraordinary meeting with the baroque composers Vivaldi, Scarlatti, and Handel. This cross-cultural encounter is a comedy of erroneous perceptions in which the Americans witness the transformation of their history into a melodramatic opera.

The cross-cultural landscape in Black Marsden is Scotland and South America. Harris suggests an affinity between Scottish and American culture as well as his own concept of the novel when he cites Kurt Wittig on Scottish literary tradition as one of “duality” and “split personality” with a marked tendency toward subjectivity:

From the beginning, (this) poetry showed a combination of two or more seemingly irreconcilable qualities: of high pathos and everyday realism, of stark tragedy and grim humour, of high seriousness and grotesquerie, of tenderness and sarcasm. … This emotional and intellectual dualism—the “Caledonian Antisyzygy”—may possibly have been reinforced by the schizophrenic tendencies of a nation which came to use one language to express thought, another to express feeling. … At any rate, the problem of a strangely subjective vision of reality is dominant.1

The duality and subjective vision associated with the Caledonian Antisyzygy are also the prevailing characteristics of Harris's exploration of the poetics of difference and identity in Black Marsden.

Fiction and reality are interchangeable in this novel. Clive Goodrich both lives and writes his adventure. The episodic structure of the text consists of a series of anecdotes and dialogues that the protagonist himself describes as “rambling absurd improvisation” (17). Since the wealthy Goodrich is at leisure to indulge his passion for walking around, the novel is composed of chance encounters and random reflections triggered by his observations of place. He compares the “naive and complex features” of the legends associated with the kings and ancient ruins of pre-Renaissance Scotland to those of pre-Columbian America (11). Goodrich writes his impressions in a diary, which he continually revises; and since everything is “grist for his mill,” he refers to himself as a “miser of infinity” (37).

On one of his many excursions, he finds Doctor Black Marsden—clown, conjurer, and hypnotist extraordinary—half-frozen among the ruins of Dunfermline Abbey in the county of Fife. He reminds Goodrich of the fabled magicians who were said to have slept in ice or snow. Goodrich arouses Marsden from his half-frozen state and instantly enters a strange alliance with him that transforms his daily existence into a “condition of marvel” (12). The magician's arousal also provides the necessary conditions for the marvelous in the text we read: the release of the inner forces of psyche as well as the creative powers of the imagination.2

The principal symbol of duality and the transformative power of the imagination in Black Marsden is the Gorgon figure, now associated with art, “the open-ended mystery of beauty—flesh into stone or vice versa” (13). In addition to Gorgon, Marsden will reveal to Goodrich the mysteries of Knife, who (like life and death) is “both straight and twisted,” and Harp, the bent “vibrating touchstone” of the inner self. Goodrich invites Doctor Marsden to stay at his home in Edinburgh, and it is there that the derelict-magician introduces him to his friends Jennifer Gorgon, a London nightclub singer; Knife, a beggar; and Harp, a frustrated musician. These down-and-out characters make up Marsden's “open-ended circus of reality.” Each acts as an agent of consciousness in Clive Goodrich's real and imaginary adventure.

Marsden, the magician, is adept at “divine cross-lateral jokes (left-hand telepathy)” (19). His presence provokes a series of dreams and fantasies in Goodrich's imagination. One such dream is the “camera” episode. Shortly after the arrival of Jennifer, the “Gorgon Spring,” Goodrich learns that Marsden has been taking pictures with his “flash bulb camera.” That evening he lies in bed obsessed by his aversion to cameras: “Half-waking, half-sleeping questions robed in abstract concreteness or concrete abstractness (it was difficult to tell which) began to plague my mind. Who or what was this camera?” (18). He then has a dream about Marsden dressed up in a camera costume. The derelict-magician slides along the floor begging for money, quoting Robert Burns, and spouting terse bits of wisdom: “The Church like the Poor like Art is always with us” (21). Then with a clap of his hands, he produces Jennifer “naked as a sea-shell” and Knife “sharp as bone or sin” from beneath the black cloth of his costume. Suddenly Knife slashes the camera, leaving Marsden as naked as Jennifer. Goodrich is outraged by the “impropriety” of this scene, but Marsden responds: “Naked propriety. … I am inventing a new style for both pulpit and theatre. She is our divided enchantress. Moral pence in church or bedroom. And a million dirt-cheap in the theatre of the world. We have created an ambiguity. And out of that ambiguity is born the Knife of humanity” (22).

For Harris, the camera, like conventional realism, gives a one-dimensional picture of reality that fails to present the ambiguity and complexity of human experience. In this sense the “realism” of the camera is misrepresentation masquerading as the real, which he associates with dogma and tyranny. Freedom, on the other hand, as Goodrich says in his diary, is “the unravelling of self-portraits and self-deceptions” (24), the “naked propriety” or truth that dogmatic realism would cover up.

According to Goodrich, the twentieth-century quest for freedom through technology is the “naked bias” that perpetuates the saying, “never let your right hand know what your left hand is doing” (19). He writes a sketch of what he calls the “comedy of Freedom,” a dialogue between the “realistic” right hand and the “visionary” left hand.3 The art of the imagination, unlike the one-dimensionality of the camera, is “a sleeping ambidextrous Queen (uniquely gifted, not double-dealing or slippery)” (19), which in Harris's view is the only salvation from catastrophe.

In Black Marsden, the derelict-magician and his associates are reifications of Harris's ideas about the nature of fiction and reality in the novel. As Maes-Jelinek points out, this is “partly a novel of ideas but one in which ideas are also concretized into characters or incidents.”4 Another example of the self-referential emphasis of the text is the Tabula Rasa Global Theatre. Marsden sets up the tabula rasa theater to produce a play, which will be a new version of the story of John the Baptist; Knife will play the role of a beggar and Jennifer that of a “thoroughly virtuous” Salome. When Goodrich objects to this interpretation as a “violation of the part,” Jennifer responds mimicking Marsden: “‘What is virtue? Virtue is a succession of violations towards the seat of love—towards the possession of head or heart. Virtue is a cruel insistence on a property of reality’” (34).

Marsden's tabula rasa drama is the “play within a play which repudiates the play of bias” (57). Like the novel, its aim is to break down the barriers of consciousness and create an open vision of reality. Both the novel and Marsden's theatrical production share the spatial properties of Goodrich's frequent dreams, “in that a motif appears and asserts itself in the dream to define and redefine the nature of community beyond conformity to a status of hubris. Acquittal, therefore, from hubris is nothing more than the revitalized life of the imagination to re-assess blocked perspectives and to begin to digest as well as liberate contrasting figures” (54).

Marsden and his associates are also actors (the liberating agents of illumination) in Clive Goodrich's “private theatre” (104). When Harp, the musician, arrives from Canada, Goodrich takes an immediate liking to him. Harp's passion is “mopping-up as well as preserving and screening relations within the ghostly family of man” (46). He is the medium through whom Goodrich is able to experience the correspondence between seemingly unrelated events. When Goodrich tells him that he feels he has known him since “the beginning of time,” Harp suggests that they may indeed be related. They are all members of the “commonwealth of man sponsored by ancient Marsden” (47).

Harp tells Goodrich the story of his father John Hornby, who died in the same year and on the same day as the famous Arctic explorer who also bore that name. Harp's goal in life has been to “bridge the distance between two legends—the famous Hornby and the obscure Hornby” (45). As Goodrich listens to his story, Harp ventures into the “Arctic night” of memory:

He stood upon the very rim of ghostland—one collective foot already in the grave, one legendary cabin already in the sky. Thus as he began to ascend and descend Sky and Creek he became aware that there were two Hornbys projected from him into the cosmos. One was a man drawn out of the hat of millions, so steeped in extremity and danger beyond humanity's lot as to become a private body in the stars, quintessential solitariness, Arctic legend of soul. The other was a man standing in the boot of millions so benumbed by humanity's lot as to die unsung, unheralded, Arctic function of non-memory, non-soul.


In his role as agent of correspondence, Harp is the link between memory and nonmemory. Goodrich soon discovers the nature of Harp's role and the strange bond between them, when he takes one of his favorite walks by the waterside. The open sky and sea of the Edinburgh landscape merge with memories of his childhood in South America:

The blue, green waves curled into animated frescoes of memory that seemed to reach towards Harp's horizons and lakes across the Atlantic: to reach farther south into the South Americas—South American savannahs pasted upon the globe like an abstract realm within fiery longitudes. …

All these vistas seemed to curl and uncurl now into ebbing and flowing waves and tides. The sea of the sky reached everywhere, spires and rocks seemed equally fraught with energies that shot upwards but witnessed to an inherent spatial design, geology of psyche.


Goodrich was five years old when his stepfather Rigby, “a temperamental Scot,” disappeared in the jungles of Brazil. He is struck by the coincidence that linked the fate of his stepfather to that of Harp's father, John Hornby: “Hornby and Rigby Ltd. Goodrich could not help marvelling in himself as he stared into the distant Water of Leith. Life was stranger than property. His stepfather Rigby had vanished in Brazil the very year, the very day Hornby and Hornby had established a pattern of legend in the Arctic. It was a judgment and equally acquittal of intuitive spaces knitted into the globe. It was an intimate parallel, Pole and Equator” (65).

The juxtaposition of fire and ice in their fathers' “muse of adventure” is related to the tabula rasa drama of conception through which the transformation of contrasting elements is achieved. Goodrich had already sensed this relationship when he wrote in his “diary of infinity” that “one lived many lives, died many deaths through others. There was a renascence or flowering, or a deeper accent of eclipse upon buried personalities—actors in a tabula rasa drama—in every encounter one enjoyed or endured. Something died. Something was born. Each element of participation carried within it new and undreamt-of senses of constellations” (64).

After Harp, the “vibrating touchstone” of correspondences, provokes the memory of his past, Goodrich attempts to “revisualize (and revise) his journey across Namless,” the country in South America where he was born. Brown Knife, as opposed to White or Black Knife,5 serves as the guide and interpreter who drives him across Namless in a rickety taxi. Goodrich left Namless when he was six or seven years old after the disappearance of his stepfather in the jungles of Brazil. Namless has changed so much that it seems like a different country; there are signs of abandonment everywhere. A revolution of sorts has taken place as a result of a popular uprising that began with demands for higher wages, better housing, and an end to discrimination. The movement was co-opted, however, when the Authorities sent a Director-General of Cosmic Theatre—instead of troops—to rule over Namless. All the demands were granted, and in the process the country was turned into a totalitarian desert, the “double-cross” of politics.

In his journey across Namless with Knife, Goodrich notices a strange figure lurking in the background. Like Knife he is one of the Director-General's intelligence agents whose mutilated body turns up later in the bushes alongside the road. Knife speculates that perhaps the agent betrayed some “secret orchestra or revolutionary avant-garde” (87). Goodrich senses something familiar about the murdered intelligence officer: “something Marsdenish (the shadow of Marsden stretching into the past and into the future of Namless Theatre)” (86). He wonders whether the agent had been caught in a conflict between a “conscious mission to rationalize” the totalitarian control over Namless and “a subconscious mission to fail,” a paradoxical phenomenon of reversal that is related to the concept of the tabula rasa comedy (89–90).

On his second day across Namless, Goodrich rebels against Knife's attempt to draw him into the Director-General's “guerrilla theatre” by refusing to accept his authoritarian control.6 With this refusal, he successfully passes the first trial of his journey. The second comes one evening toward the end of the journey when he hears the plaintive sound of bagpipes rising across the Basin of Namless. Goodrich recalls the Scottish legend of a piper who sacrificed his life to save his master from an ambush by sending out a warning on his bagpipe. Knife claims that in Namless the “Piper's Warning” has been given a new meaning; now it is a signal to go forward rather than turn back, a signal of assurance and safety. Goodrich is skeptical, however, and senses that the music is a warning from Marsden's dead agent. He rejects the new interpretation of the signal, refuses to go forward, and thus brings an end to Knife's role as guide in the journey across Namless.

In this real and imaginary journey, Clive Goodrich reaches back into “the slate of childhood” and emerges with a strange sense of “denuded namelessness” (94). Yet his refusal to submit to Knife's control and his decision to abandon the journey enables him to assume a new, more powerful role in his relationship with Marsden, the director of the tabula rasa theater. When he returns to Edinburgh, Goodrich agrees to allow Jennifer Gorgon, who has become pregnant by one of her many lovers, to live in his home. He recognizes a seemingly irrational connection between his acceptance of this new alliance with Jennifer and his decision to abandon the journey across Namless:

And he felt in his denuded state or shadow against the wall a new tide or re-creative decision at the heart of a crowded world. It was a strange realization, a chastening realization, in spite of apparent intoxication: chastening in that he saw himself now in line with both the pale rider in the Royal Mile and the out-of-doors mechanic who had been Jennifer's companions over the past months. He now, as her third potential consort, saw himself equally riddled with the malaise of the twentieth century—with a bankruptcy of authority. And yet in clinging to the annunciation of decision which he made at the door of death, he was beginning to relate himself differently both to the dreadful vacuum of his age and to the implacable biases underlying that age—biased flesh-and-blood, biased creeds, biased refuge of wealth.


As a result of the “re-creative” decision he made on the road to Namless and his pact with Jennifer, Goodrich begins to assert his own authority—both as author of his own consciousness and as author of the tabula rasa drama (the play of art and imagination) that takes place in his home. He and Marsden are now “on equal footing in a post-hypnotic threshold to life”; and at their next meeting, the formerly all-powerful director of mind and art appears “drained of some measure of diabolic self-assurance, depleted of an omniscient function” (100).

Now that Goodrich has begun to resent Marsden's control, he feels that it is time to give up his “marvellous discipline in invisibility” (105) and decides to change his shabby, unfashionable clothes for a flashier appearance in order to express his new relationship with Gorgon, the none too virtuous agent of creative transformation. When he appears in his new clothes, Marsden and Jennifer are astonished by his metamorphosis, and Goodrich detects a hint of disapproval that “the world's guinea pig … should turn peacock, a usurper of fire, of privileges” (108). But Marsden's authority is not so easily challenged, and besides he is an expert at co-optation. Jennifer has confessed everything and he approves of their plan. Outraged by this betrayal of trust, Goodrich orders them both to leave. He then realizes that Marsden looked like Jennifer's other lovers and had come close to acquiring yet another face—“his face.”

Goodrich resists the threat of losing his identity to Marsden, as he did in the journey across Namless; but despite this newly found “inner fire of resolution,” he is left feeling alone, “utterly alone, as upon a post-hypnotic threshold at the heart of one of the oldest cities of Europe” (111). For Harris, a condition of exile (utter solitude) is the necessary paradox of freedom. The “magical commonwealth” is only possible in subjective vision and the creative imagination. In Black Marsden, Harris extols the nameless “I,” which like art is a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which the imagination inscribes an original vision beyond historical biases of race, ideology, and power.

The dualism of language, emotion, and thought is the basis of Harris's improvisational aesthetics in the tabula rasa comedy, the play within the play of his ludic discourse. A similar process of duality and improvisation operates in Alejo Carpentier's Concierto barroco, where the heterogeneous, contrasting elements of baroque art and jazz are the inspiration for the author's experiments with novelistic form. In Concierto barroco, Carpentier returns to the eighteenth century, but the action of the novel projects into the early twentieth century; thus he sets up a parallel between the exuberant spirit of the late baroque period and the jazz age.

Reversing the steps of the conquest, a wealthy Mexican and his Cuban servant Filomeno travel from the Americas to Europe. The relationship between El Amo, the master, and Filomeno is similar to that of Lenormand de Mezy and Ti Noel in El reino de este mundo; their commentaries and responses to the experience of the journey serve as contrapunteo mental (ideological counterpoint) between two aspects of American cultural awareness, including its racial and class dimensions. El Amo, born in the New World but the son of a Spaniard, is a somewhat pretentious hombre culto with a confused sense of cultural identity; whereas Filomeno, of African descent, is a sensible but irreverent musician who is proud of his cultural heritage. The Mexican's journey to Europe in the eighteenth century suggests the expatriate experience of numerous New World intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s, who must leave home in order to discover a sense of their own identity. This theme is dealt with much less seriously in Concierto barroco, however, than in Carpentier's earlier works. The cultural emphasis in this later novel is on the author's concept of the baroque and the universality of the mythic or creative imagination.

The ludic conception of the novel is announced in the biblical epigraph from Psalm 81, which signals the beginning of the author's “baroque” concert. In the opening chapter we are introduced to the wealthy Mexican who is packing his belongings for the long journey to the Old World. Carpentier's description of the Mexican's luxurious home, laden with silver, including “a silver chamber pot, the bottom decorated with a roguish silver eye soon blinded by the foam which, reflecting the silver so intensely, ultimately seemed silvered itself,”7 is a parody of the descriptive detail of his own baroque style. The play on words and ribald sense of humor with which El Amo and his home are portrayed prepare us for a different approach to the themes dealt with in earlier novels: the quest for origins, the notion of cultural mestizaje, and the relationship between writing and history.

The juxtaposition of Old and New world culture and the theme of the conquest is presented in a painting that hangs in the reception hall of the Mexican's Coyoacán mansion. In a fanciful rendition of the “most transcendent event in the country's history,” a European artist brings together the major historical figures of the conquest:

Montezuma was portrayed as part Roman and part Aztec—a Caesar with quetzal-feather headdress seated on a throne, its style a hybrid of Vatican and Tarascan Indian—beneath a canopy held aloft between two halberds, a vague-looking Cuauhtemoc with the face of a young Telemachus, eyes slightly almond-shaped, standing beside him. Before him, Hernán Cortés, a velvet hat on his head, sword in his belt—arrogant boot bestriding the first step of the imperial throne—was frozen in a dramatic tableau of the Conquest. Behind, Friar Bartolomé de Olmedo in the habit of the Mercerderian Order, brandishing a crucifix with a gesture betokening scant friendliness, and Doña Marina, with sandals and Yucatecan huipil, arms outstretched in dumb show of intercession, apparently interpreting to the lord of Tenochtitlán what the Spaniard had just said.


The decidedly European interpretation of the “great event” in the Italianate style of an earlier period that makes the Aztecs look like Romans adorned with quetzal plumes anticipates one of the principal themes of the novel: the problem of cultural perception and the relationship between historical realism and artistic representation.

El Amo leaves the port of Veracruz accompanied by his servant Francisquillo in what must have been the year 1709.8 When their ship is disabled by a storm, they take refuge in Havana harbor only to find the city besieged by an epidemic of yellow fever (one of Carpentier's favorite signs of doom and disruption). They are forced to stay in a miserable little village outside of the city where within three days Francisquillo succumbs to the fever, leaving El Amo without a servant, a prerequisite for his trip to Europe where he wishes to make la gran entrada playing the role of the wealthy indiano:9 “his dream of the figure he would cut wherever he appeared, wealthy, rolling in wealth, with money to burn, he a grandson of those who had set out from Spain—‘their bottoms showing through their breeches,’ as the saying goes—to seek their fortune in the land of America” (48). His problem is solved when he meets Filomeno, a free black who reads, writes, and plays a “rude” guitar. The Mexican decides that Filomeno will be quite suitable as a servant since it was fashionable for rich gentlemen to have black valets; and besides which “Moors” were reported to be all over Europe, even in Denmark where “queens, as is well known, have their husbands murdered by poisons” (49). As El Amo's comment indicates, there is a constant interplay between fiction and reality throughout the novel. El Amo accepts what he knows about European theater as fact; in his mind there is no separation between fiction and reality.

This notion is repeated in Filomeno's dramatic account of the legendary feats of his great-grandfather Salvador Golomón, protagonist of the first poem of known authorship written in Cuba, Espejo de la paciencia (1608) by Silvestre de Balboa.10 Filomeno proudly recites lines from this poem in which the African slave appears as a heroic figure who defeats the French pirate Gilberto Giron. El Amo compares Filomeno's storytelling to the oral style of the traders recounting the history of Montezuma and Hernán Cortés in the market places of Mexico.

Throughout Filomeno's reenactment of the legend, the Mexican interjects ironic remarks on both the style and content of Filomeno's story, advising him in accordance with the rules of classical rhetoric to avoid unnecessary digressions and to follow a logical order of development: “‘Get on with your story in a straight line, boy,’ interrupted the traveler, ‘and don't be veering off on tangents and curves; to arrive at the clear truth calls for many proofs and reproofs’” (50). The self-referential commentaries of Carpentier's text not only call attention to the relationship between orality and writing (viewed by the Mexican as problematic) but also the intertextual focus of the novel. As Filomeno's tale illustrates, Concierto barroco is composed of stories that are retold.11

Carpentier's retelling of Espejo de la paciencia serves both as a commentary on the black presence in the history and culture of the Americas as well as a reference to the problematics of American literary tradition since its beginnings in the sixteenth century. El Amo, for example, considers Balboa's reference to satyrs and centaurs in the guava trees of Cuba a product of the poet's “excessive imagination.” From the perspective of most modern Caribbean and Latin American literary criticism, Balboa would be accused of excessive imitation of European classical models.12 Filomeno, however, does not doubt that such marvels could exist in Cuba:

[He] never questioned that in these islands supernatural beings, creatures of classical mythology, should have been seen, similar to many of darker complexion that still inhabit the woods, fountains, and caves here—as they have in the far-off indeterminate kingdoms from whence came the forebears of illustrious Salvador, who was, in his way, a sort of Achilles, inasmuch as, for lack of a real Troy and keeping things in due proportion, one can be an Achilles in Bayamo or an Achilles in Coyoacán, commensurably with the magnitude of events.


As in the earlier novel, El reino de este mundo, the black protagonist of Concierto barroco is identified with the folk imagination. And Filomeno, proud of his ancestry, has no trouble appropriating the “universality” of the mythic legacy attributed to the Greeks.

In his dramatic reenactment of his grandfather's legend, the victory celebration that follows the defeat of the French pirate is described as a “universal concert” in which musicians from Spain, the Canary Islands, creoles, mestizos,naboríes (Indian servants), and blacks take part. The wealthy Mexican, however, is skeptical about any such mixing of cultures: “—‘An impossible harmony! Never could such folly have occurred, for the noble old melodies of the romance and the subtle modulations and variations of good maestros would have married ill with the barbarous racket raised by Negroes when they set to work with their rattles, maracas, and drums. … What an infernal cacophony it would have produced and what a great liar that Balboa must have been!’” (55). The “impossible harmony” of Filomeno's concert is, of course, what New World music becomes in all its various forms from the Afro-Cuban son to Afro-American jazz.

In the course of the Mexican's journey with Filomeno through Europe, Carpentier reexamines the relationship between the concept of cultural mestizaje and artistic expression dealt with in his earlier writings. The two travelers leave Cuba for Spain, but the Mexican's encounter with the exalted homeland of his forefathers and Hernán Cortés is a disappointment compared to what he left behind in the Americas. He decides to cut short his stay and leave immediately for Italy in order to get there in time for the Carnival of the Epiphany, which would attract people from all over Europe.

Carnival is the world of unrestrained revelry and parody where cultural values and hierarchies of all kind are turned upside down. The bawdy atmosphere of carnival in Venice is therefore the setting for the break with traditional novelistic conventions of time and space in Concierto barroco. It is also here in the inverse world of carnival that the Mexican must confront his own cultural identity. Already playing the role of the wealthy indiano, the Mexican decides to dress up as Montezuma. He meets a priest to whom he relates the story of the ruler who lost an empire to “a handful of bold Spaniards with the help of an Indian woman who was in love with the chief of the invaders” (70). Impressed by the theatrical possibilities of the Mexican's story about the Aztec emperor, the priest, who turns out to be the composer Antonio Vivaldi, suggests it would be a good subject for an opera. They are then joined by Scarlatti and Handel, who have just returned from the first performance of the latter's Agrippina. This extraordinary encounter therefore takes place on 26 December 1709.13

After a drunken discussion about art, the Mexican and Filomeno join the three composers for an evening of music at the Ospedale della Pietà, a famous conservatory for orphaned girls where Vivaldi taught. With Handel at the organ, Scarlatti at the harpsichord, and Vivaldi on the violin, seventy young women perform “the most extraordinary concerto grosso the centuries could ever have heard—but the centuries remember[ed] nothing” (79). Meanwhile, Filomeno accompanies them by playing percussion rhythms on some pots and pans he found in the kitchen. What ensues is the “impossible harmony” of Carpentier's baroque concert. This eighteenth-century “jam session” combines the heterogeneous mixtures of sounds and improvisation associated with twentieth-century jazz.

After the concert is brought to a close, Filomeno notices a painting that depicts Eve being tempted by the serpent. The image of the serpent reminds him of an African ritual practiced back home. While making a gesture of killing the snake, Filomeno begins singing an Afro-Cuban chant:

—The snake is dead


Vivaldi responds by giving the Afro-Cuban verse a Latin variation: Kábala-sum-sum-sum. The others join them in this exchange between Africa and Europe, dancing around the room in an eighteenth-century version of the conga:

They all fell into line, hands on each other's waists, swaying their hips, forming the most disparate mummers' troupe imaginable. …

Ca-la-ba-són-són—sang Filomeno, accenting the beat more strongly each time. Kábala-sum-sum-sum, replied the Venetian, the Saxon, and the Neapolitan. Kábala-sum-sum-sum repeated the others, until exhausted from so much whirling, running up, running down, going in, going out, they returned to the concert hall and collapsed.


Filomeno's Afro-Cuban chant sets in motion a “whirlwind” of transformations in which all cultural barriers are temporarily swept away.14

After dancing and drinking until dawn, the Mexican and Filomeno leave the Pietà with the three composers for a cemetery where they can have a quiet picnic breakfast away from the carnival uproar in the city. When they get there, Vivaldi returns to the subject of Montezuma and his idea of turning the story into an opera. He compares the Aztec emperor to the king of ancient Persia, Xerxes. Tired of worn-out themes, he thinks Montezuma would provide something new:

All the Orpheuses, all the Apollos, the Iphigenias, Didos, and Galateas! It's time to look for new material, different milieus, other countries, whatever … to bring Poland, Scotland, Armenia, Tartary to the theater. Other characters: Geneva, Cunegonde, Griselda, Tamerland, or Scanderbeg the Albanian who gave the damnable Turks such a bad time. There's a fresh wind blowing. The public will soon weary of lovelorn shepherds, constant nymphs, sententious rustics, Olympian panderers, laurel wreaths, moth-eaten peplums, and last season's royal robes.


Filomeno suggests what he thinks would surely be a new subject for the European stage—an opera based on the legend of his great-grandfather Salvador Golomón. When the Saxon (Handel) and the Venetian laugh at the idea, even the Mexican takes offense at the Europeans' response. The indiano compares Golomon to the fifteenth-century Slavic hero Scanderbeg: “‘That doesn't sound so farfetched to me. Salvador Golomón fought for his faith against its enemies, the Huguenots, just as Scanderbeg fought for his. If a criollo of ours seems like a savage to you, the same could be said of one of those big Slavs out there’” (91–92).

Carpentier uses the remainder of their graveside discussion to poke fun at cultural prejudices and ignorance. There are whimsical commentaries about Moors in Venice, Gothic queens, the bizarre behavior of Scandinavian princes who play with skeletons, and bad English taste in drama. The boisterous exchange is full of puns and anachronistic references to railroads, Barnum and Bailey, Richard Wagner, and Igor Stravinsky. One such literary gag is Filomeno's trumpet solo in pure Dixieland style, which is greeted with loud protests by the others:

And all at once, he reached for his cloak rolled up beside the provender and drew out the mysterious object given him “for remembrance”—as he had said—by Catterina del cornetto: It was a gleaming trumpet … which he immediately raised to his lips, tested his embouchure, then launched into a series of blares, flutters, glissandos, and shrill whines that evoked vigorous protests from the others, for had they not come there in search of tranquility, to escape the carnival street musicians and, besides, this was not music and, even if it might possibly be construed as such, totally inappropriate in a cemetery, out of respect for the dead lying in peace under their solemn gravestone slabs.


Filomeno's music is of course no more discordant than the jam session at the Ospedale della Pietà, and the Europeans' negative response to it contradicts their own claims to “modernity” and innovation. This episode therefore underscores the relativity of cultural values and prepares the way for a fuller discussion of the relationship between cultural perception and artistic representation when Vivaldi carries out his plan to turn the story of Montezuma into an opera.

The following episode supposedly takes place the day after the Carnival celebrations of the evening of 26 December 1709. In fact, however, the Mexican is awakened by Filomeno from a deep sleep some twenty-four years later in the fall of 1733 on the day of the first performance of Vivaldi's Montezuma. They attend a rehearsal of the new opera, for which the Mexican has contributed his Montezuma costume. Vivaldi's operatic version of the conquest is reminiscent of the painting in his house in Coyoacan, but even less faithful to reality. The indiano is deeply disturbed by Vivaldi's artistic adaptations: the Mexican scenery looks too much like Venice, Montezuma's empress is a cross between Semiramis and a Titian lady, Teutile—the leader of Montezuma's armies—is transformed into a woman, and La Malinche, the conquistador's Indian interpreter and lover, is eliminated altogether since no Italian opera singer would ever accept such a part.

The Mexican is enraged by Vivaldi's melodramatic ending in which Hernán Cortés forgives his enemies, and the friendship between Aztecs and Spaniards is celebrated with the marriage of the female Teutile and Ramiro, the younger brother of the Spanish conquistador. When the indiano protests against the historical inaccuracies, Vivaldi responds: “Stop giving me that history crap. Poetic illusion is what counts in the theater” (116). Furthermore, according to him, “In America everything is fantastical [fabuloso]: tales of El Dorados and Potosís, fabulous cities, talking sponges, sheep with red fleece, Amazons with only one breast, big-eared Incas who eat Jesuits” (117). The composer's response is an ironic inversion of Carpentier's own concept of the marvelous in American reality and repeats what had become the essence of European discourse on the Americas since the arrival of Columbus and the conquistadors.

In the final episode of the novel, the two Americans reflect on the significance of their journey and the relationship between history and fable. Vivaldi's operatic rendition of the conquest forces the Mexican to see himself differently. Although he is the grandson of a Spanish conquistador, while he watched the opera he wanted Montezuma to win out over the arrogance of Hernan Cortes. He now considers himself, as he says, “on the Americans' side, brandishing the same weapons and willing the ruination of those to whom I owe my blood and my name” (122). It seemed that the opera singer dressed up in his borrowed Montezuma costume was playing a role that belonged to him. He suddenly felt out of place, exotic, far from what was truly his; but he realizes that “it is sometimes necessary to distance yourself from things, to put an ocean in between, in order to get a close look at them” (123). He then decides to leave Venice and return home that very night, to return to lo suyo.15

Commenting on the Mexican's response to Vivaldi's opera, Filomeno observes that the purpose of theatrical illusion is “to remove us from where we are and take us to where we can't get to on our own”; to which the Mexican adds, “It also serves us—and this was written by an ancient philosopher—to purge ourselves of anxieties hidden in the deepest, most secret places of the self. … On seeing the America contrived by that bad poet Giusti, I no longer felt myself a spectator and became one of the actors” (122). Through illusion and fabrication art, like traditional mythic discourse (and the carnival saturnalia for that matter), is a means of releasing the inner conflicts of the psyche. The two Americans now recognize that the validity of art, like myth, resides not in its absolute fidelity to historical fact but in its ability to transform consciousness.

Referring to Vivaldi's comment that in America everything is fable, the Mexican expresses Carpentier's concept of myth as memories of the future: “‘You mustn't forget that great history feeds on fable. Our world seems like a fable to the people over here because they've lost the sense of the fabulous. They call everything fabulous that is remote, irrational, that belongs to yesterday. … They don't understand that the fabulous is in the future. The future is entirely fabulous’” (123). The Mexican's understanding of the relationship between mythic discourse and history recalls Vico's axiom that all “histories have fabulous beginnings” and that myth and fable are forms of poetic divination; that is, creative hypotheses about human history.16

Furthermore, the structure of the narrative in Concierto barroco imitates the temporal dislocations of mythic discourse: past and present are projected into the future. The final episode of the novel is presented as a direct sequel to the rehearsal of Vivaldi's opera. It actually takes place, however, in two different historical periods—the year Handel produced his most celebrated work, the Messiah (1742), and the 1920s. After the indiano decides to return home, the narrative suddenly shifts from the mid-eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. The Mexican is now boarding a train, ready to settle down in his Wagons-Lits-Cook compartment. But Filomeno plans to stay another day so that he can attend a concert and then go on to Paris where they will address him as “Monsieur Philomène” rather than just “el negrito Filomeno” as they do back home in Havana.17

Before parting, Filomeno and the Mexican discuss the need for a revolution to change those old racial prejudices and the trumpet as the instrument of the Apocalypse, the revolutionary End of Time that brings about a new beginning:

“That's why they blow it so often at the trials on the great Day of Judgment when it comes to settling accounts with sons-of-bitches and snakes-in-the grass,” said the black.

“We won't be seeing the last of those until the end of time,” replied the criollo.

“It's a funny thing,” observed Filomeno, “but I always hear about the end of time. Why not talk about the beginning of time?”

“That would be the Day of Resurrection,” answered the criollo.

“I don't have the time to wait all that time,” said the black …

The big hand of the station clock jumped the second separating it from 8 p.m. Almost imperceptibly, the train started to slip into the night.


By presenting this final exchange between the two travelers in the eighth chapter at eight o'clock in the evening, Carpentier once again underscores the spiral-like movement of time and consciousness, as well as the structure of the novel itself.18

As the train goes off into the distance, Filomeno turns toward the city lights, and Venice seems to have grown tremendously old. Now it stands as a monument to the passage of time, signaling the age of traveler's checks when journeys no longer have the same prestige as in former times. Filomeno, however, is looking forward to a Louis Armstrong concert that night. For him, the sound of Armstrong's trumpet is “the only thing … alive, current, and pointing like an arrow toward the future” (129).

Jazz, like Carpentier's novel, is the terrestrial music that takes the place of the old myths that have been degraded in an age of technological progress and consumerism. Filomeno compares it to the universal music evoked by Balboa in Espejo de la paciencia and the baroque jam session at the Ospedale della Pietà. This “new baroque concert” combines the musical traditions of Africa, Europe, and America into an art form associated with the quest for social as well as artistic freedom. As an expression of New World culture, jazz transforms the original clash of cultures into a new beginning. Jazz is Carpentier's metaphor for the dialectics of culture, in which the notion of cultural hegemony is overturned, allowing for individual expression within the context of collectivity, his redefinition of universal culture.

The journey in both Concierto barroco and Black Marsden is a process of duality, inversion, and transformation in which the protagonists confront questions of personal identity and the relationship between art and reality. In the resolution of the Old World/New World dichotomy, however, the South American protagonist of Black Marsden remains poised on the threshold of awareness in a state of exile, the nameless void of the tabula rasa theater; whereas his counterpart in Concierto barroco, the Mexican indiano, overcomes the alienation of his divided consciousness and chooses the New World tradition of cultural plurality, the “impossible harmony” of the new baroque concert or jazz. Furthermore, the Mexican's alter ego Filomeno (like Ti Noel in El reino de este mundo) plays an important role in perpetuating the revolutionary content of the mythic imagination. For even in the twentieth century when the vitality of the old myths is undermined by modern science and commerce, he sees the creation of new mythic forms projected into the future.


  1. Wilson Harris, Black Marsden: A Tabula Rasa Comedy (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), pp. 9–10; all further references are cited in parentheses. In a later novel, Carnival (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), the concepts of duality and ambivalence associated with the Caledonian antisyzygy in Black Marsden are identified with the ludic elements of the Caribbean folk festival. Harris uses the carnival metaphor as a means of revising and reenvisioning notions of identity, power, and creativity. See Maes-Jelinek, “‘Carnival’ and Creativity in Wilson Harris's Fiction,” The Literate Imagination: Essays on the Novels of Wilson Harris, ed. Gilkes (London: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 45–61.

  2. From a Jungian perspective, Michael Gilkes interprets Marsden as “both the hero's personal (and archetypal) shadow and the creative magus-like activity of the author himself,” Wilson Harris, p. 146.

  3. See Gilkes, Wilson Harris, p. 149.

  4. Maes-Jelinek, Wilson Harris, p. 142.

  5. Knife appears in many guises; he is beggar and assassin, and although he is Marsden's “white purgatorial Knife,” he resembles a Black Knife that Goodrich once met in Jamaica. Because of his various racial identities, Maes-Jelinek refers to him as the “face of the collectivity,” associated with racial and political polarizations (Wilson Harris, p. 142). Similarly, Gilkes sees him as a symbol of the “double-edged nature of violence in which victim and victor are both affected” (Wilson Harris, p. 147). He may also be interpreted in a more general sense as Harris's representation of the harsh ambiguities of life.

  6. In the journey through Namless, Marsden is identified with the Director-General; earlier in the novel Knife is referred to as a “rude parody of Marsden's head of state” (Black Marsden, p. 57).

  7. Concierto barroco, trans. Asa Zata (Tulsa, Oklahoma: Council Oak Books and University of Tulsa, 1988), p. 7. All citations are from this edition of the novel, which was originally published in Spanish (Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno, 1974).

  8. Specific dates are not mentioned in the novel, but are verifiable by references to certain cultural events, such as the first performances of famous operas and concerts. See González Echevarría on the calculation of historical dates in Concierto (The Pilgrim, pp. 266–68).

  9. The term indiano in Spanish refers to a person from the Indies. It may be used for a Spanish American or a West Indian, but historically the term refers to a person returning to Europe from South America with great wealth.

  10. Pedro Barreda, The Black Protagonist in the Cuban Novel (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979), p. 14. Although Barreda dismisses Balboa's portrayal of the epic hero Salvador as just another European stereotype of the black man, akin to the notion of the noble savage, the Bayamese slave in Espejo de la paciencia presents a powerful image that is almost totally lacking in subsequent treatments of black characters in Cuban literature until the poetry of Nicolás Guillén and the novels of Antonio Zambrana and Alejo Carpentier.

  11. See González Echevarría on intertextuality in this novel (The Pilgrim, pp. 267–68).

  12. Pedro Barreda's criticism of Balboa's poem in The Black Protagonist in the Cuban Novel is a good example of this attitude.

  13. See González Echevarría on the calculation of this date; he also notes that 26 December is Carpentier's birthday (The Pilgrim, p. 268).

  14. González Echevarría describes the carnival revelry at the conservatory as the “whirlwindlike center” in which the occult traditions of Afro-Cuban religious practices and the cabala are intermingled (The Pilgrim, p. 266).

  15. The Mexican's experience may be interpreted as a semiautobiographical reference to Carpentier's own experience in Europe in the 1930s and his response to the surrealist interest in the legends and myths of the Americas.

  16. Giambattista Vico, The New Science (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1968), pp. 73, 119–20, 128.

  17. In this regard, Filomeno's expatriate experience corresponds to that of many black musicians who went to Europe in the 1920s and 1930s (and continue to do so) to escape racial prejudice at home.

  18. González Echevarría points this out in The Pilgrim, p. 270, and cites Cirlot on the symbolism of the double figure eight as a sign of regeneration.

Abdulrazak Gurnah (review date 12 November 1993)

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SOURCE: Gurnah, Abdulrazak. “A Confluence of Spaces.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4728 (12 November 1993): 22.

[In the following mixed review, Gurnah summarizes the main themes of Resurrection at Sorrow Hill and The Carnival Trilogy, noting that the trilogy's prose is “obstinate and difficult.”]

The Guyanese writer Wilson Harris long ago rejected realist fiction because of its “authoritarian” reliance on event and circumstance, and developed a different method in his own work. His prose cultivates ambiguity—not in the playful manner of postmodernism, which in the Harris cosmos is irresponsible frivolity—but in order not to foreclose on possibilities by precision. His language aspires to express “multitudinous life”: the simultaneous existence of past and present, life and death, the visible and the invisible. In this respect, his fiction resists being processed into the “strait-jacket” of meaning, and values above everything “multi-layered luminosities” and “numinous exactitudes” of experience. Resurrection at Sorrow Hill is his twenty-first novel, and it covers very familiar Harris terrain.

As in his last three novels, Carnival,The Infinite Rehearsal and The Four Banks of the River of Space (reissued by Faber as The Carnival Trilogy), the central debate in this fiction is conducted through myth and literature: Dante, Faust, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and Walter de la Mare's “The Listeners” figure in varying degrees. But the underlying concerns are familiar, the responsibility of the individual in “the waste land,” the need to create a “life of conscience,” the triumph of paradox over the absolute. This edition has a valuable introduction by Harris himself, which argues the connection between the novels and begins to look forward to Resurrection at Sorrow Hill.

Sorrow Hill is at the confluence of the Essequebo, Mazaruni and Cuyuni rivers in the interior of Guyana. It is a place of merged cultures and histories, and a confluence of “spaces” of existence, a “precipitation” of human endeavour. “An asylum for the greats” is established here, counting among its inmates Monty the Venezuelan, who is also Montezuma, king of the Aztecs, Len the Brazilian, who is Leonardo da Vinci, and a number of other “greats”—Socrates, Buddha, Karl Marx, etc. Their doctor is Daemon, who hectors and encourages them to play out parables of human dilemmas. The whole comedy is the work of another inmate, Hope, which “Wilson Harris” has edited. Harris is fond of inserting the novelist into his novels, so that the book appears to be a collaborative effort between author and character. That Hope is also a maker of fiction endorses the transformative powers of art, and figures the artist as an involuntary recipient of the gift of life, or what Harris calls “the genius of Love.” Hope's arch-adversary is Christopher D'eath, who like every other figure in Harris's novel is divided—in this case between the Christ-like part of himself and that characterized as death, which is the desire of power and ascendancy through violence. In this sense, the novel's existence is a triumph of Hope over D'eath.

Christopher D'eath has several reasons to be cross with Hope, among them his affair with Butterfly, D'eath's mistress. But the antagonists are also playing out rehearsed parts, enacting repeated histories. Killings recur as ritual, the sacrifice of innocence to meaningless violence, each death repeated infinitely. This is South America five centuries after the Spanish Conquest and after slaughter by the Dutch, the English, the French, and the enslavement and transportation of Africans; after indentures and drownings. Hope feels so surrounded by death that even the aftermath of the act of love feels like “a precarious resurrection.” The question at the heart of Hope's book is: how can the human mind be thawed into compassion? It is a question addressed with passion and seriousness in the parable which the inmates of the asylum play out. In the central parables, Montezuma desires revenge for the chaos which followed the Conquest, speaking in this case for “the desperation of victim cultures.” But the desire for revenge releases and feeds other violences. For where there has been dismemberment, Hope suggests, “there is the creative necessity to visualize re-membermemt.” History needs to be re-envisioned rather than replayed in reverse.

The section on Leonardo, though not as effectively done, debates the question of guilt and conscience. It is resolved by the equally optimistic argument that the cruelties had come alongside creativity, and that acts of admission and conscience will release the power of such knowledge to transform both present and past. Harris calls this “sin-eating,” a process by which civilization admits guilt for the cruelties it inflicted on its victims, and so releases them from injustice. For this to come about, both self-knowledge and faith are necessary, otherwise the ambition to transform is only hubris. And even in Daemon, the figure who in the end becomes the mast-head of the craft which descends with its redemptive burden to Sorrow Hill, nihilism and faith are contending forces.

Resurrection at Sorrow Hill requires “the closest attention to density,” to borrow one of his phrases, and anyone familiar with Harris's work will realize that what is offered here is a very untangled summary. His metaphors come heavily laden, and his narrative, though full of striking images and phrases, is constructed from a language which is obstinate and difficult. Despite its passion, the narrative gaze is also self-forgiving, dramatizing the speaking ego as anguished but principled, approving its tones of concern. Though the novel approves ambivalence and flux, and rejects “the hubris of one-sided human discourse,” its high-handed accents at times come close to the authoritarian voice which Harris rejected so early in his career.

Brian Morton (review date 12 November 1993)

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SOURCE: Morton, Brian. “The Voyage In.” New Statesman & Society 6, no. 278 (12 November 1993): 39.

[In the following positive review, Morton focuses on the central themes of Resurrection at Sorrow Hill and The Carnival Trilogy.]

Stephen Hawking is to the postmodern novel what J. W. Dunne and An Experiment with Time were to early Modernism. Both provide a consoling objectification of creativity that demands no recourse to psychology. For most readers, Hawking's invocation of God was a satisfying cadence rather than a disturbing philosophical crux; for hadn't God just been dispensed with?

The problem is essentially the same with the Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris, except that Harris' fiction begins with the death of God and enacts the resurrection of meaning, as it were backwards, from the singular mystery of the Creation. The central drama of Harris' work, from The Palace of the Peacock (1960) onwards, is the validation of dream and the confounding of death. He has spoken about the “re-visionary strategies” of his fiction: the steady unfolding of the mythological sub-structures of which he was unaware at the time of writing, such as the connection between ship/sanctuaries and the City of God in the Carnival trilogy.

Harris is a metaphysical writer; not so much in the sense that he is concerned with abstract philosophical concepts, but in that his work is continually reinvented. Like the English Metaphysicals—it is no accident that the thrice-dead horseman of Palace is called Donne—he chooses to reveal himself at the moment of maximum doubt. The parallelism between Newton and the poets, or the frail Hawking and the novelists, still holds up.

Harris' stories are plastic rather than iconic, dynamic rather than fixed. They pledge resurrection, but in a context that forces the reader to push doubting fingers into the text's wounds—literal ones, in the case of Resurrection at Sorrow Hill. His 20th novel, and by some way his longest, it returns to the central drama of the first: the voyage upstream into the uncharted hinterland that stands for the mythic unconscious.

Harris was trained as a hydrographic surveyor in British Guiana during the war. As a country, it is an almost perfect emblem of the Freudian—or maybe better, the Jungian—model of the mind. There are also, of course, substantial post-colonial agendas. But one suspects that, for Harris, the deep significance of colonialism is psychic, Conradian. Even present-day Guyanans, Harris insists, display little enthusiasm to explore the interior, and restrict their activities to a narrowly rational seaboard. To that degree at least, he and V S Naipaul are pessimistically like-minded.

In the Carnival trilogy (Carnival itself, The Infinite Rehearsal and The Four Banks of the River of Space) Harris sets about remapping three classics: The Odyssey,The Divine Comedy and the Faust legend. He shifts their psychic and mythological watersheds ever inland, rediscovering their radical content.

In Resurrection at Sorrow Hill, he does something rather different. It is perhaps the nearest thing he will ever write to a developed novel of manners and psychology. The background is an asylum in which the inmates, broken by their contact with the heartland, exist in a kind of flux with “the greats”: Montezuma, Leonardo, Judas, Giordano Bruno. These are the central actors of the larger cultural struggle. But the central narrative impact, clearer perhaps than in any of his other books, concerns the adulterous love of Hope and Butterfly, and the putative revenge of her husband, Christopher D'eath.

The shots fired at the lovers are of a far more uncertain trajectory and “magic” potency than any discharged in Dallas 30 years ago. Like the shot that “kills” Donne in Palace, they are transformed in flight and confer an instantaneous regeneration. The “wounds” are both stigmata and script, love and its punishment in an eternal dialectic. The third shot D'eath reserves for himself; he survives materially, but with a huge spider-wound on his cheek. Harris has rarely used the Christian underpinning so boldly, even when he made a connection in the Carnival trilogy between the bloody thicket on Calvary and the crucified rainforest of South America.

Guarding the Asylum for the Greats is the widowed Dr Daemon. His wife Ruth, like Harris characters in the past, has perished in the rapids and has not been yielded up by the three rivers that converge beneath Sorrow Hill. During his time as a surveyor, Harris lost friends to the jungle. They were never recovered, and there is a principle of metaphysical habeas corpus underlying these mysteries that Harris continually invokes.

All of his work, now more than 30 years in the making, is of a piece. It has been a long voyage upstream, largely against the critical current. Where more rational travellers would portage past falls and rapids, Harris takes us through them, plunging into the mystery. It will take years to unravel his significance, and to do so may demand an awareness of nature and its unity that we have already lost or destroyed.

Michael Thorpe (essay date July 1994)

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SOURCE: Thorpe, Michael. “Wilson Harris: Writing against the Grain.1Ariel 25, no. 3 (July 1994): 113–20.

[In the following essay, Thorpe argues that The Radical Imagination represents “the distillation of Harris's thought and art,” noting that Harris is at least as influential and important a literary and cultural critic as he is a novelist.]

Two recent compilations supply what may be regarded, respectively, as the distillation of Wilson Harris's thought and art and of the critical responses of an élite corps of Harrisians, devotees, and unravellers of his works during the years 1969–90. The Radical Imagination gathers his lectures and talks in the years 1989–91, including his Smuts Memorial Fund Commonwealth lectures at the University of Cambridge in 1990, “Cross-Cultural Crisis: Imagery, Language and the Intuitive Imagination.” Wilson Harris: The Uncompromising Imagination, whose purpose is to laud him on his 70th birthday in 1991, is both fittingly celebrating and, in parts, bracingly critical. Together, these volumes provide occasion, as Harris's work has constantly done, for re-evaluating the possibilities of literary creation.

Towards the close of his first Smuts lecture, “The Fabric of the Imagination,” Harris writes:

When the human animal understands his genius, he roots it in the creature, in the forest, in the trees, in other words in the language which we are and which we acquired, not only from our mother's lips but also from the sound of the rain falling, from the sigh of the leaves, from the music of the earth as we pressed on it, what crackled under our feet. All those sounds are threaded into the language of the imagination that incarnates or realises itself through diverse cradles into the birth and mystery of creativity. And that is what you have there—the fossil, and the presence.

(Radical Imagination 78)

Progressive realism, driven by technology, urbanized, has lost touch with this “genius.” Harris has not: he discovered it in the heartland of Guyana and it remains with him. When he speaks, as he does verbatim in the lectures and interviews printed in these volumes, an integral world is re-created (although the printed page cannot capture the magic of his speech, often spun from a mere card of notes, for an hour's seamless re-visioning of cross-cultural connections).2 The speech, the presence, cast a spell, as does each densely wrought novel, each “a quest for original value, original spirit, in a dangerous world” (Infinite Rehearsal 17).

Ever since the self-consciously sacerdotal Arnoldian critic came into being, to mitigate the recession of the transcendent, we have sought salvation in the scripture of our literature. A renewal of spiritual vision is, if not impossible, extremely difficult, as T. S. Eliot taught; and Harris treads in the prints of “one of the truly great poets of the century” (Radical Imagination 75), re-allegorizing Dante (most explicitly in Carnival), the seer Tiresias, the sacred wood, re-assembling the waste land's fragments, but he goes further. Eliot's vision was edited, exclusive: Harris attempts the utmost inclusiveness, “a quantum immediacy” (Radical Imagination 81), in his cross-culturalism differing most conspicuously from an Eliot who feared diversity, Eurocentric despite the Asiatic gestures of “What the Thunder Said.” Harris's religious, intuitive, inspirational sense is stronger—a veritable Tiresias, who is no mere trope in a fiction [that] fictionalizes author and characters alike” (Infinite Rehearsal 48).

For those who cling to Arnoldian positivism, in some sense, Harris champions a “therapeutic” art directed against not only the determinism of “progressive realism” and its “linear bias” (Radical Imagination 72) but the “betrayal” (22) of the “post-modernist game” (58) or “nihilism” (Maes-Jelinek 47), which denies “reality” depth and even its very existence. Again, like Eliot, he embraces tradition, but from a perspective more relevant to our time. His stress is upon uncovering the “common inheritance” (Radical Imagination 12) discernible in “a language riddled with the colonial legacy” (14), beneath which and infusing which is the “world's unconscious” (25), a phrase he prefers to the maligned “universal,” although he is not afraid to use that word. As it is imperative for those who claim the imperial language as their own to acknowledge its abuse, so must those who resent its imposition go beyond cries of “self-righteous deprivation” (Radical Imagination 36, 99) to collaborate in a “continually regenerative hybridisation” (13).

On so many issues that perturb us, Harris speaks, as a critic, finely and justly: Stephen Slemon rightly comments, at the close of a tightly argued contribution on Harris's deconstruction of “realism,” on “the enormous importance of the questions that his writing so consistently seeks to address” (Maes-Jelinek 82), urging that we pay the criticism no less intense attention than that which the works receive. Our rape of nature, our massive pollution, cannot be corrected merely by technological “adjustment” (Radical Imagination 73), if at all; our abuse of de-sacralized animal life is a break with a long past in which we saw ourselves, with some humility, as the human animal. Where do such recognitions lead us?

Harris's vision is animated by “religious hope” (Radical Imagination 58), a hope grounded “in the imagination, in creativity and in the intuitive element in human beings” (102). His quests are purposeful, like Bunyan's or Dante's, inspired like Blake's, his intuitive theatre of the imagination rehearses its dramas, not only “of humanity” but also “of divinity” (Infinite Rehearsal vii). His first novel closes in what he hoped was “a kind of Christian epiphany” (Harris, Interview 103). We are engaged, in seeking to understand him, not only in the kind of fascinating academic exegeses gathered in the Festschrift, but in the pursuit of ultimate meaning. The Guyanese Michael N. Jagessar, in his “Theological Perspective” upon The Infinite Rehearsal, observes: “It is important. … to examine Harris's understanding of God” (Maes-Jelinek 225). He discerns in Harris an androgynous sense of God as involved in “a genuinely interdependent relationship” with the World “rather than a merely authoritarian one” (225). Inevitably, he associates God with such forces as that which “guide” da Silva's art (Harris, Da Silva 32), analogous to the claim Harris himself reiterates, that he is merely the agent of the text's “intention,” “delegated by some mysterious power” (94). As Jagessar notes, few of Harris's critics, apart from Hena Maes-Jelinek, have paid this aspect much attention; yet it seems absolutely central: Harris is a religious visionary. This is at the core of his work. A clearer statement of this may be found outside these two collections, in the affirmation of religious “hope” we find in “Comedy and Modern Allegory: A Personal View,” where his crucial question is

how to perceive through the lineaments of a terrifying global masquerade some other caring presence, some measure of hope and ecstasy. … Herein lies the annunciation of the deepest, carnival comedy, the comedy of the divine. The angel that brings good news, news that we can scarcely bear and digest, news of an Incarnation that seems impossible and absurd, news of immeasurable hope and joy, provokes a response in masks of terror.


This is not the stance of the “modern” as we understand it, that places at best an anguished stress upon the loss of God, as George Steiner, in his Real Presences, where he re-asserts art's access to transcendent insight, suggests: “It is this absent ‘thereness,’ in the death-camps, in the laying waste of a grimed planet, which is articulate in the master-texts of our age. It lies in Kafka's parables, in the viewings of Golgotha in Beckett's Endgame, in the Psalms to No-one of Paul Celan” (230). The most that a quintessential (post)modern philosophical novelist, Milan Kundera, dares claim for fiction is “the wisdom of uncertainty” (Art 7) upon a “planet … moving through the void without any master” (41). Nor is Kundera's form or quest simplistic, straitened by the linear realism Harris rejects: it is dense, meditative, exploratory, “an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become” (26), with resilient wit—“not,” to quote Steiner again, “at peace in a sceptical rationality” (229). Kundera, understanding what we have lost, comprehends also our yearning for the absent “weight” of significant history or revealed truth.

Does Harris, by contrast, draw us out of disgust with our deterministic disillusion, our nostalgic wish for a lost holistic vision? Is Harris's imagination, in this respect, seductively conservative? How, it may be demanded, can Dantesque allegorical strategies, oblique and opaque, address the problems of our “tormented age” (Harris, Radical Imagination 110)? How can the “genesis of love” (111) Harris adumbrates relate to “the army of humanity” (111) living in the Inferno? What claims to this end may confidently be made by the materially comfortable First World critic (or writer)? Immune from material deprivation, does he resolve the infernal dilemma in the self-gratifying realm of the imagination? Perhaps so, but one does not suspect this of Harris himself:

We have to face the fact that we live in a tormented age and that there are many who are buried in famine or who are buried in various kinds of distress. … we cannot ignore the fact that these exist, whatever may be our own situation, our security.

(Radical Imagination 110)

Harris faces it, undoubtedly; in answering a questioner after his lecture “Originality and Tradition” at Liège (1991), he confesses to feeling “almost total despair” in thinking of the Holocaust (132). Yet such an event, doubtless a contributory cause of the “pervasive and uniform despair” (Maes-Jelinek 30; Harris, Radical Imagination 124) he resists, can only be overcome—at least to the extent that it may be seen as “partial,” not total human reality—with the aid of “some mysterious power” or “stranger.” Potentially, we are all, he affirms, “Vicars of Truth” (Radical Imagination 94), agents of a pervasive, counteracting love that unites us, or would, if we had faith enough: this has been a constant concern since Palace of the Peacock where Donne experiences “a terrifying vision of his incapacity to exercise love in an age of conquest” (Harris, “Comedy” 129).

“We must love one another or die”—these famous words from “September 1, 1939” came to embarrass Auden, and he repudiated them. One wonders how many Harrisians could put into practice what Harris really urges. We are on safer contemporary ground with intellectual argument and pleas for tolerance and mutual understanding, such as the moderate E. M. Forster advocated when he wrote, “We are all of us mongrels, dark haired and light haired, who must learn not to bite one another” (31). Harris demands much more, but can be followed to differing levels. In a lively essay, “Sustaining the Vision: Wilson Harris and the Uncompromising Imagination,” the Guyanese critic Desmond Hamlet draws attention to Harris's singular, urgent pre-occupation, since Da Silva Da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness, with our need to nurture the cross-cultural imagination, “to convert rooted deprivation into complex parables of freedom and truth” (Harris, The Womb of Space 137). In this endeavour Harris has focussed upon colonial deprivation in Central and South America and the Caribbean, upon those regions' violent historical commerce with Europe, seeking to dissolve biases of domination and deprivation in a visionary, imaginative expedition. He attests that a “healthy and creative conflict sometimes erupts in me between my South American/Caribbean roots and the sensation of being European” (Maes-Jelinek 47)—a rare sensation that, in our time, “Third World” writers are liable to judge heretical. By implication, the huge, impossible “burden” Harris's effort entails must be shared and extended, involving Yeats's “Asiatic immensities” (Harris was repelled by Raja Rao's attachment to karma) and the torn continent of Africa; and what of the growing empire of Islam, which persecutes difference, arguably the most threatening example of “the moribund principle” of an “absolute regime” (Carnival 14)? While we may find kin to Harris in such Caribbean writers as Derek Walcott and Latin American magic realists such as Carpentier, or in Toni Morrison of the United States, or in Australia's Patrick White and New Zealand's Janet Frame, the difficulty of working “against the grain” of the time (Radical Imagination 131) was perfectly illustrated by Harris's disagreement with Chinua Achebe over the significance of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Harris's “The Frontier on Which Heart of Darkness Stands,” reacting to Achebe's indictment of Conrad as a “bloody racist” in “An Image of Africa,” rebukes a writer, with whom he nevertheless deeply sympathizes, for his failure to look beyond the colonial hurt and envision “the crucial parody of the proprieties of established order that mask corruption in all societies, black and white” (88–89).4 Conversely, in “Comedy and Modern Allegory,” Harris asserts—what he has practised in his recent fiction—that “Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe are as much the heritage of black men and women as of white men and women because the triggers of conflicting tradition—whether Dante's Virgil, Shakespeare's Caliban, or Goethe's Faust—lie in, and need to be reactivated through, the cross-cultural psyche of humanity …” (137).5 Yet if an Achebe cannot rise to the cross-cultural vision, what is the price of that vision against discourse dominated by Said's Orientalism or such intelligent but, in Harris's terms, “partial” exercises in Western self-flagellation as Robert Young's White Mythologies: Writing History and the West? This study, correctly postcolonial, does not even glance at cross-culturalism or, for that matter, such writers as Harris, Achebe, and Conrad. Postmodernly, although its author teaches English at Oxford, it privileges theory and feeds upon theoretical texts, ignoring the insights and intuitions of contemporary imaginative literature. Young's study subscribes typically to the First World academic obsession pinpointed by Mark Williams and Alan Riach in their refreshing “Reading Wilson Harris” as “a Manichean view of social experience in which colonialism and its legacy is [sic] utterly evil and all those who are in some ways victims of this legacy are wholly righteous” (Maes-Jelinek 52). Gareth Griffiths, in “Wilson Harris and Caribbean Criticism,” deplores the focus in postcolonial criticism on academic theorists such as Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha at the expense of ignoring writer-critics such as Harris, Walcott, Soyinka, and Awoonor (Maes-Jelinek 69).

I have attempted to concentrate here upon Harris's status and work as a critic (which Stephen Slemon urges the Festschrift should “also” celebrate): indeed, considering the notorious “difficulty” of his fiction, his criticism may be or may become the principal source of his influence, combined perhaps with those critiques, such as Maes-Jelinek's, that most lucidly elicit the meaning and purpose of his creative work.6 However this may be, Harris's cross-cultural leadership is an example of salutary integrity and courageous independence. His underlying belief that “if language is simply a man-made story, we are doomed, we are lost” (Radical Imagination 26), whether one shares it or not, does not detract from that example.


  1. See The Radical Imagination, where in answer to a questioner Harris cites English novelists he admires “who have written against the grain” (131)—Golding, Peake, Woolf.

  2. In a poem I contributed to the Festschrift, written after I met him and heard him address the Mysore Literary Society in 1978, on a hotel rooftop above a clamorous city, I paid tribute to this power.

  3. Not very revealingly, Harris describes himself to Alan Riach as “a kind of Christian Gnostic” (Radical Imagination 57): this seems unlikely to signify adherence to any particular gnostic sect, but rather to express a conviction in Christian truth, centred upon Christ's paramount importance, with an openness to broader mythological rather than canonical modes of revelation.

  4. This insight is shared, however, by Wole Soyinka, whose play “A Dance of the Forests” (1960) exposes black corruption, of both present and past, recognizing the endemic slavery already entrenched in the medieval despotisms of his own Yorubaland, as it was in Dahomey and Ashanti. To glorify those black empires would be inconsistent with righteous denunciation of their white successors. Harris's reiterated stress on the dangers of expressing “righteous deprivation” makes it inappropriate to align him too closely with “oppositional voices.” (Cf. Decolonising Fictions, 28–33).

  5. Dante's Divine Comedy, Homer's Odyssey, and Goethe's Faust are “re-written” in the trilogy Carnival (1985), The Infinite Rehearsal (1987), and The Four Banks of the River of Space (1990); epigraphs from Homer and Goethe occur in his earliest work, with some Homeric poems set in Guyana, in the privately printed poems Eternity to Season (1954; rpt. New Beacon Books, 1978).

  6. Citing Slemon's view, Brydon and Tiffin see Harris's “novels” as “the finest example” of a Caribbean writer “[transgressing] the boundaries between the discourses of the ‘literary’ and the theoretical-critical” (Decolonising Fictions 145). This may be viewed differently: A. J. Seymour, introducing the original edition of Eternity to Season, noted that a weakness of the style “may be the way the beauty of the imagery is overlaid by the flux of philosophical correlation” (54). This has been a recurrent feature of the fiction (with some exceptions) and one may ascribe it to Harris's critical urgency, even anxiety, to ensure his message is grasped.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa.” Massachusetts Review 18 (1977): 782–94.

Brydon, Diana and Helen Tiffin. Decolonising Fictions. Aarhus: Dangaroo Press, 1993.

Forster, E. M. Two Cheers for Democracy. 1951. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.

Harris, Wilson. Carnival. London: Faber, 1985.

———. “Comedy and Modern Allegory: A Personal View.” A Shaping of Connections. Ed. Hena Maes-Jelinek, Kirsten Holst-Petersen, and Anna Rutherford. Aarhus: Dangaroo Press, 1989. 127–40.

———. Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness. London: Faber, 1977.

———. Eternity to Season. 1954. London: New Beacon Books, 1978.

———. “The Frontier on Which Heart of Darkness Stands.” Research in African Literatures 12:1 (1981): 86–93.

———. The Infinite Rehearsal. London: Faber, 1987.

———. Interview. By Michel Fabre. Kunapipi 2.1 (1980): 100–09.

———. The Radical Imagination: Lectures and Talks. Ed. A. Riach and M. Williams. Liège: Université de Liège, 1992.

———. The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Kundera, Milan. The Art of the Novel. New York: Harper, 1988.

Maes-Jelinek, Hena, ed. Wilson Harris: The Uncompromising Imagination. Aarhus: Dangaroo Press, 1991.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Columbia UP, 1978.

Soyinka, Wole. “A Dance of the Forests.” 1960. Collected Plays I. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1973. 1–78.

Steiner, George. Real Presences. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Young, Robert. White Mythologies: Writing History and the West. London: Routledge, 1990.

Stephen Breslow (review date winter 1995)

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SOURCE: Breslow, Stephen. Review of Resurrection at Sorrow Hill, by Wilson Harris. World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 203–04.

[In the following review, Breslow discusses Resurrection at Sorrow Hill in terms of Harris's use of language and allegory.]

Wilson Harris, the Guyanese-born, English-settled dreamer of South American mythologies, has continued his cycle of poetic novels with Resurrection at Sorrow Hill. Like the other novels of this long series, begun with The Guyana Quartet—which comprised the novels Palace of the Peacock,The Far Journey of Oudin,The Whole Armour, and The Secret Ladder (1960–63)—this latest text hangs its intensely complex fabric of poetic legendizing and abstract discourse upon a simple, quasi-realistic skeletal frame story. Imagine an insane asylum located in the remote Camaria region of Guyana where the patients and the psychiatric director articulate fantasies of their “real” and imagined lives to one another over a period of years, as recorded in the asylum “dream-book” written by one of their members, named Hope. A pivotal idea, the notion of dual personalities, allows Harris's characters to create mythical doubles of themselves, who in turn interact among one another in a kind of hallucinatory, epic theater in which the mythic resonances and opportunities for thought become far more important than any tracings back into realistic social behavior. Such a simple, open-ended frame story allows Harris almost totally free rein to pursue his poetic confluence of universal myths within this remote Guyanese location.

Populating the novel are Monty, a Venezuelan murderer who thinks he is Montezuma, the last king of the Aztecs; Len, a former physics and chemistry professor who went berserk and masterminded an ostentatious bank robbery and who then came to the Sorrow Hill asylum as Leonardo da Vinci; Mark, an arsonist who claims he is Karl Marx; Nameless, who masquerades as Socrates and proposes the creation of a theater of Second Comings; Archie, a disturbed polymath who thinks he is an archangel; and the central characters Hope the mad diarist, his rival Christopher D'eath, the jailer and husband of Hope's beautiful beloved Butterfly, and the sorrowful widowed director of the asylum Dr. Daemon. Beyond the identification of these mad characters with their historical or legendary doubles, Harris expends little effort in trying to document any reasons, in real psychological terms, for their assumed identities. After his abrupt introduction of each succeeding character, the author moves almost immediately into his characteristically turgid prose, which lacks nearly all temporal, spatial, or real-life demarcations. The characters are fictional figments of Harris's own legend-making mind who operate in a grand, fluid matrix of mingled myths and abstract concepts.

The central constellation of characters form the most obsessive, repetitive fragments in Harris's novel. Hope has an adulterous affair with D'eath's wife Butterfly; the lovers are shot by D'eath and later commiserate with Dr. Daemon, who lost his own young bride, Ruth, through drowning. Yet this central story is far richer on an allegorical plane; only there does it begin to assume its true significance in the context of Harris's mythic purpose. We can read them as Hope's (everyman's) desire for love (Butterfly), under the threat of death (in a Christian, redeemable world), all within the precinct of the human spirit (Dr. Daemon) afflicted by sorrow (Ruth). Later, when Mark (Karl Marx) burns down the church of Father Robson, who himself fell in love with June (Mark's beloved), we encounter a further extension of Harris's essentially Christian allegory: the historic attack on Christianity by Marxist ideology. The acts and proclamations of the archangel (Archie) cap the novel and, in fittingly Christian terms, form an inspired, apocalyptic denouement.

Such a transparent, one-to-one allegorical reading of Harris's novel ignores what is perhaps the most important aspect of his prose, however—the language itself. It could be said of Harris's novels what has been said of James Joyce's, that the most important “character” in the work is the prose itself. It is the discursive and poetic interaction among Harris's mythic figures that carries the most compelling messages of the entire novel: the unfolding of innovative interpretations of uniquely combined myths and archetypes within the context of an indeterminate New World, where all the world's accumulated cultural fragments may creatively mingle to form new visions and concepts. Harris's greatest creative gift is for the construction of a consummately freewheeling discourse in which the innovative juxtaposition of widely disparate ideas and myths forms a quasi-surrealistic poetic reverie, constantly reaching for the never-before-spoken. His is a mind split open and spewing its contents like the maddest of lunatics and the greatest of innovative geniuses. Like Joyce's, Harris's prose is difficult reading yet tremendously stimulating to the pertinacious reader who can cast aside all desire for realism and can take the time to savor many rich new conceptual flavors exuded phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, stirred by the hand of a master poetic chef.

Abdulrazak Gurnah (review date 5 July 1996)

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SOURCE: Gurnah, Abdulrazak. “Imagining Guyana.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4866 (5 July 1996): 24.

[In the following review, Gurnah discusses how Jonestown addresses broad questions of culture and freedom in the context of Guyanese history.]

On November 18, 1978, in the interior of the Cooperative Socialist Republic of Guyana, over 900 American followers of the “messianic” Pastor Jim Jones died in Jonestown. Most of them took their own lives in a practised ritual suicide, drinking the Fla-Vor-Aid laced with cyanide which was given to them by the Pastor's assistants. The day before, an American Congressman and a group of Concerned Parents on missions to rescue their off-spring were ambushed and killed by Jones's followers. It was the climactic act in the duplicitous and paranoid rhetoric of racial brotherhood and socialism which had held Pastor Jones's flock in thrall. The mass suicide was the last deluded act of defiance against enslavement in the United States. Some of the followers were shot as they tried to evade their co-operative fate.

Francisco Bone, the narrator of Wilson Harris's new novel [Jonestown,] is a survivor of Jonestown. On a “Dateless Day,” from his address at “New Trinity, New Amsterdam,” he sends a manuscript of his Dream-Book to “W. H.” to edit. The initials obviously stand for Harris, a curiously ineffectual conceit, since the novelist's self-insertion into the narrative plays no role that would not have been evident in any case, in a text which covers the unmistakable imaginative and intellectual landscape habitual to Harris's fiction. In this landscape, Guyana is a confluence of cultures and histories, whose “Overarching Ghosts” link hotch-potch Guyanese realities—the fragmented community whose “plurality” Harris invests with such optimism—with the invisible pre-Colombian past of Mayan civilization and (in his reading) an uncomplicated Amerindian presence. That the Maya should be Aboriginal ghost and ancestor to contemporary Guyana indicates the imaginative leaps across geography and history that Harris's fiction is capable of. But to link the recent mass emigrations from Guyana to an atavistic urge inherited from the vanished Mayans is to ask the imagination to play dead, to diminish the contribution the dictator Forbes Burnham made in impoverishing and terrorizing his society in recent times. It was under Burnham, at a time when the Comrade Leader was in his Internationalist period, that Pastor Jones established his New Jerusalem in the deep interior of Guyana, and the cruel mendacities that ruled in the camp of that “charismatic” leader would have had their resonances in the cooperative Socialist Republic itself.

If Harris invests Guyana with the potential of a New Jerusalem where troubled histories merge and transform themselves across “chasms in memory” to something hopeful and free, then it is the individual Imagination of the artist (it gets a capital “I” in Harris's fiction) which is the temple of this vision. Imagination is the necessary act of resistance in the face of the anti-humanism which Harris sees as its antithesis, resisting the teleological seductions of modernity by reiterating a desire for “the womb of time.” The citation of Samuel Beckett's monologue, Imagination Dead Imagine, in this connection clearly endorses the text's bleak diagnosis, while refusing to give up the redeeming role of the imagination. There is, in Harris's championing of the imagination, echoes of the Transcendentalism of Whitman and Emerson, a desire to privilege the individual vision, despite everything that torments and disables it: “One becomes … a vessel of composite epic, imbued with many voices, one is a multitude. That multitude is housed paradoxically in the diminutive surviving entity of community and self that one is.”

All of Wilson Harris's characters in Jonestown speak like philosophers of mystic persuasion, everything they say sounds reflected on and as word-perfect as an old obsession. They confront their dilemma with a number of the helpful narrative tools that Harris has used in all his fiction, a method which directly repudiates the realist style he has characterized as the “fiction of persuasion.” So Francisco Bone and his companion, Mr Mageye, “Magus-Jester of History,” travel back and forth across time as they debate the proliferating matters that interest them, invisible in a Nemesis Bag and able to sort their itinerary out by the use of a Celestial Camera, which can provide clips of the past as required. Some of this to-ing and fro-ing in the narrative seems frenzied and over-charged, and the intensity with which positions are debated seems undiscriminating. In truth, Jonestown itself recedes into a faintly drawn narrative frame through most of the novel, as Wilson Harris gets stuck into his familiar themes. But Harris's questions have not lost their bite, so, despite the apparently free-floating abstractions of the text, the desolated context of Guyana is present. His narrator asks: “At what age are we equipped to bear the burden of freedom?” The novel worries away at this, placing Jonestown within a larger vision of the authoritarian excesses which afflicted Guyana in particular, and other post-colonial territories in general. The question is also, of course, a more wide-ranging observation about culture and freedom, and the consequences on social life of the stifling of the “sovereign” Imagination, a subject which is a tireless obsession in all of Wilson Harris's work.

Paula Burnett (review date 12 July 1996)

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SOURCE: Burnett, Paula. “Apocalypse Now and Then.” New Statesman 125, no. 4292 (12 July 1996): 48.

[In the following review, Burnett offers a positive assessment of Jonestown, calling the novel a “mind-altering experience.”]

Reading Wilson Harris is like staring into the luminous, fluid palaces at the heart of a log fire. Those addicted to push-button heating don't know what they're missing. But, like a log fire, you may need patience to get it going. Harris, a Guyanese novelist who was writing magic realism before the term was invented, puts it down to the influence of the rainforest on him as a young surveyor: “There was this peculiar density, depth, and transparency in the rainforest … One thing would correspond with another in startling ways.”

After that, for the writer in him, “language began to bend, to shape itself.” He deplores realism as blind to the “parallel universes of the Imagination,” and post-modernism as having “denied depth” and “ruled out the unconscious.” A great original, he is both poet and mythmaker.

The historical record of Jonestown, the theme of his 20th novel [Jonestown,] speaks of a charismatic religious leader who founded a cult in California and led his followers to a utopian settlement in the Guyanese rainforest. In 1978 the murder of outside investigators was followed by mass suicide. Among the 913 who died were 276 children. Jim Jones, the messianic leader, was killed by a shot to the head—a wound, says Britannica, “probably not self-inflicted.” In that “probably” a gulf opens. What do we know of Jonestown who only these things know?

Harris transforms the banner headline of Jonestown into something rich and strange, weaving a new pattern from ancient and contemporary threads. The catastrophic end is set against another unexplained collapse of a people in Central America: the Maya, whose mathematics and myths, in particular their book of origins, the Popol Vuh, enable Harris to find the seeds of regeneration.

His novel is a dream-book, a visionary narrative set down by a Jonestown survivor. History relates that two men escaped at the height of the killing. Harris creates Francisco Bone, but this narrator is twinned with a skeleton death-figure and antagonist, Deacon. Deacon is Jones' right-hand man, but becomes the avenger who kills him. Bone is the left-hand man and the dreamer, who goes on to enact a redemptive odyssey.

Harris entwines these two paths, of nemesis and imaginative insight. Thought and action, life and death, are turned inside out like a sleeve. He calls Jones “Jonah,” making him an inverted Christ (the whale was traditionally read as death or hell, defeated by resurrection) and a tragic figure like Moby Dick's hero.

Bone is told by his guide to entitle his dream-book Imagination Dead Imagine, a rich signifier (taken from Beckett) of language's power to transcend the closures of time and space. The narrative reaches back through the Jonestown Day of the Dead, to a last supper, to Bone's Guyanese childhood, and to the archetypal myths of the world which met in the Americas. For Bone and Deacon can also be seen as the heroic twins of the Mayan Popol Vuh whose task is to defeat death.

Harris's is not the first book on Jonestown by a Caribbean writer. The late Shiva Naipaul wrote a thoughtful study, Black and White, arguing that the massacre was part of the failure of 1960s' idealism. Harris, whose approach is quite different, shares with Naipaul a wish to understand our complicity in the event—its meaning as a sign of our time, and as a reminder of other “holocausts.”

The Maya believed in cyclical time in which history repeats itself whenever the divine influences coincide. They also thought that the world would come to a sudden end and had sophisticated numerologies for prophecy. Harris likewise loops the lasso of time; he unmasks the past in the present and looks to the future. Epochs can get out of kilter, tripping on phallic violence. Influenced by Jung, Harris seeks the archetypal feminine to restore the balance.

One of three Virgins in his story sits by a cradle, empty “save for a beautiful toy, a wheeled chariot … within which lay a minute cherry from a flake of blood-wood in a Christmas tree.” Although the pre-Columbian Maya did not use the wheel, they did have wheeled toys. And, in the Popol Vuh, the divine twins' mother-to-be defeats death by offering the clotted bloodlike sap of a tree. In Harris's evolving discourse nothing is lost. The “unfinished genesis of the imagination” has been his motto, and where better to seek it than in a cross-cultural cradle?

Although the dialectics of Harris's novel are not simple, his imagery is compulsive if you let go of preconceptions. Readers interested in mind-altering substances, without a rainforest to hand, could find a session with Jonestown a truly consciousness-raising experience.

Alfred López (essay date autumn 1996)

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SOURCE: López, Alfred. “Meaningful Paradox: The ‘Strange Genius’ of Wilson Harris.” Conradiana 28, no. 3 (autumn 1996): 190–205.

[In the following essay, López discusses the influence of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness on post-colonial fiction, particularly its representation of otherness, and argues that Harris surpasses Conrad in his writing.]

What a golden jest colonialism and postcolonialism are. What untold riches! He knows as he dreams in his cradle. What a gift for a newborn child.

—Wilson Harris, The Four Banks of the River of Space

It is thus not a matter of opposing another discourse on the same “things” to the enormous multiplicity of traditional discourses on man, animal, plant, or stone, but of ceaselessly analyzing the whole conceptual machinery, and its interestedness.

—Jacques Derrida

As might be guessed from the title, this is not entirely an essay about Wilson Harris; that is, my intent here is not necessarily to produce a close reading (or rather, a close[d] reading) of one or other of his texts, although we will certainly need to read them closely. Rather, my interests here can be said to begin with an essay written about someone else: a novelist who is (for better or worse) credited in many circles with opening a door for writers of the so-called “developing” world, credited with producing (or better, finding) a fissure in Western thought through which postcolonial texts have grown and flourished.

Although it is possible to find traces or symptoms of this fissure, described by Jacques Derrida as “a rupture and a redoubling” (“Structure” 1117), in individual texts, we may see it more clearly by reading between texts. For it is precisely by reading the gaps that we may best understand the nature of this fissure; its exterior form is that of a frontier, which one writer defined and another has gone beyond. Let us begin then with this favorable introduction to the work of the former:

[Joseph] Conrad's books, I say it without fear of contradiction, have no counterparts in the entire range of English literature. … The manner, as opposed to the matter, is even more striking, more original. [Conrad's work] is wholly unlike that of any writer who has hitherto used the English language as his vehicle of expression, and may indeed be regarded, in some sort, as embodying a discovery of yet another use to which our tongues can be put.

(Clifford 11–12, italics added)

Clifford's assessment is less relevant for its praise of Conrad (Clifford was, after all, a friend and frequent correspondent of Conrad's) than for what it praises: “the manner, as opposed to the matter,” more the language than any thematic or ideological aspect of the texts; it is clearly the language of the texts that Clifford finds innovative, even “exotic” (12): “yet another use to which our tongues could be put.” For Clifford, then, Conrad's difference is in his discourse.

This early (and largely illusory) distinction between the discursive forms and thematic “content” of Conrad's fiction, with the subsequent (but not always deliberate) privileging of the former, may be found in even the harshest of his postcolonial critics. Chinua Achebe, whose ideological aversion to Conrad is well-known (“Conrad was a bloody racist” [124]), recognizes him (albeit grudgingly) as “one of the great stylists of modern fiction and a good storyteller into the bargain” (120); and Edward Said is likewise compelled to admit that the language of Conrad's texts “was far in advance of what he was saying” (Said 171). Whether Conrad's discursive talents functioned in the service of morally or ideologically questionable interests, in what Said calls “the duplicity of language” (171), or indeed whether such a claim is finally relevant to the task of a literary criticism, is a matter for another essay.

Just as clearly, however, it is not enough for us simply to say “Conrad was not a racist,” or “Conrad did not mean that,” as if we were under some obligation to draw a Manichean line between two moral or ideological contents. Our readings take the form not of interdictions (with all the moral baggage that loaded word entails) but of interventions, literally a “reading between” of texts. When Wilson Harris says that Heart of Darkness is a frontier novel, he is not so much creating a place for Conrad alongside postcolonial texts as he is acknowledging a space from which such texts emerged. This space is not a delimiting line, but rather a fissure or fracture of a line; it is the “threshold of capacity to which Conrad pointed though he never attained that capacity himself” (Harris, “Frontier,” 162), a capacity, in the most general terms, for language or more specifically, for a discourse with which to represent the other's Other-ness. For Conrad, this entails a constant if implicit questioning of what Harris calls the “monolithic absolutes or monolithic codes of behavior” (“Frontier” 162) that invariably govern imperialist discourses, and opening (or rather, finding) a space through which the process of questioning may continue.

Before moving to Heart of Darkness we should perhaps look a bit longer at Clifford's essay, with an eye toward finding traces or symptoms of the Conradian fissure in texts written about him; for once the rupture is written it creates a space (for Harris, a “doorway”), a de-centering of the discursive regime that makes new subject positions possible—a de-centering that, once realized, will inevitably be read and written by others. Consider Clifford's telling reflection that “Mr. Conrad had seen [non-whites] and known them, but he had seen as white men see—from the outside. He had never lived into the life of brown people” (16). Clearly a recentering has, for the critic, already taken place; for despite Clifford's comments later about the Congo (referred to only as “the great African river”) and “the incomprehensible savage life upon its banks” (18), he has qualified all such comments in advance with the acknowledgment of his own—and Conrad's—perceptual bias: both see “as white men see—from the outside.” The white European, after such a concession, can no longer occupy the center of his language (and I use the possessive advisedly) alone, can no more be the sole standard by which non-Western civilizations are judged. This, more than anything else, is the de-centering fissure over which Heart of Darkness presides: the realization that whiteness is not all, that the colonized other cannot be explained away by a simple opposition of “civilized” subject and “barbaric” object. If Conrad's fiction cannot itself cross over the threshold, cannot itself achieve a parallel intersubjectivity with its others, it at least—to a far greater extent than other colonial fictions (Kipling and Forster come to mind)—realizes this condition as a lack, as being problematic. It is to the expression of this problematic in Heart of Darkness, and Harris's transformation or “going beyond” of it, that we will now turn.


Much of Joseph Conrad's art probes the limitations of the English language.

William W. Bonney

The above assessment of Conrad's fiction (195), which Bonney develops at some length in his Thorns and Arabesques, is a useful enough place to begin; it is especially relevant, I think, both for its articulation of the “frontier” to which Harris refers and its own inability to cross over into postcolonial territory. Seen in this context, Bonney's take on the phrase “heart of darkness” is especially instructive for its incompleteness; that the image is “founded not upon anything that exists empirically either for Marlow or the reader” but based upon a metaphoric vehicle (“heart”) and tenor (“darkness”) which are themselves tropes for a tenor that neither Marlow nor Conrad can produce (Bonney 195) is an observation which, while largely accurate, does not account for what that “heart of darkness” might be or Conrad's inability to articulate it. Like Conrad, Bonney probes the frontier, the metaphysical limitations that inevitably surface in the language, without going beyond it.

Grammatically, it would be correct enough to say that “heart of darkness” is an absurdity—a metaphor without a referent, a contradiction compounded by the phrase's position as the title of the novella. Conrad's text would reveal—or more literally illumine, shed light on—the “heart of darkness,” that we may “see” it; but in literal terms, such an illumination is clearly impossible (all puns on). To shed light on darkness is necessarily to change its intrinsic makeup, to render it no longer that which it was; the darkness can remain dark only if untouched by light, making any attempts at illumination self-contradictory: darkness cannot be “illuminated,” and neither Conrad nor Marlow can “illuminate” the darkness for us. That the phrase was nevertheless conceived as a metaphoric vehicle for something—something which neither the literary nor critical text ultimately illuminate—is instructive not only of Conrad's limitations but also those of a particular kind of grammatical analysis. For it is not enough to simply say that “Heart of Darkness is absurd” or “is about absurdity,” or as Bonney more qualifiedly puts it, that in Heart of Darkness “only a process of indeterminate imaginative regression survives the suicidal figurative inflation of the original grammatical unit” (195). Bonney's assertion that readers of the text must remain “bereft of direction and any possibility of fulfillment” and “are thus rendered even more powerless to achieve a definitive orientation than are his most sensitive characters” (195) is finally inadequate, not only because of the implied universality of such a claim (i.e., that he speaks for “all readers”) but because of the suspect standard by which readers are being judged. It is significant, if arguable, that the closest thing to a “sensitive character” in Heart of Darkness is Marlow himself, however much his reliability may be undermined by the fact of his first-person narration (he is, after all, representing himself more directly than anyone else in the text). If we nevertheless provisionally accept Marlow as a “most sensitive character” despite this qualification, we would still have to account for his own bias—his own “situatedness”—as a character; or in other words, we would need to determine what kind of a standard Marlow represents, and critique in a rigorous way the kind of theoretical structure which would claim Marlow as a standard of judgment. Or better: as a center.

Marlow's character has often (perhaps too often) been referred to as that of a modern-day English “Everyman”; and certainly the earnestness of his work ethic, and what we might call his strong sense of an English “order” or “morality,” (he is, by his own account, “one soul in the world that [is] neither rudimentary nor tainted with self-seeking” [Heart of Darkness, hereafter cited as HD, 66]) are qualities constantly emphasized through the text. Also unquestioned by Marlow (at least before his tenure in the Congo) is his belief in the work of empire; even after all he experiences, he can still claim a belief in the “power of devotion, not to yourself, but to an obscure, back-breaking business” (HD 65). Marlow's lengthy encounter with the ruthless, predatory realities of the imperialist project clearly do some damage to these sensibilities. But while he may recoil in horror from Kurtz's anarchic, avaricious thirst for power and the “unspeakable rites” (HD 65) over which he may have presided, Marlow nevertheless remains safely within the confines of his English rationality—a concept largely defined by Aristotelian oppositional logic and Western metaphysical models of thought. But although Marlow clings tenaciously to his “Englishness” and his Eurocentric vision, he cannot help seeing through the “hollow sham” of imperialism, a pose embodied by Kurtz as the voice of the empire's “civilizing mission.” It is this ambivalence in Marlow—this discrepancy between what he sees and what he can allow himself to tell—which fuels the narrative tension in Heart of Darkness. More importantly, however, we can see Marlow's ambivalence as the realization of a lack; that is, it is symptomatic of the fundamental inadequacy of his language when faced with a crisis of perception (a crisis, I think, shared by Conrad). Marlow, in his encounter with colonial Otherness, can intuit a threshold—a frontier—which, as we shall see, he cannot bring himself to cross.

Marlow hints at the ambivalence of his own moral distinctions between “good” and “evil” from the narrative's opening pages; from his opening words, he is already attempting to undo the implications of the text's title. Marlow's observation that “this also … has been one of the dark places of the earth” (HD 19) clearly challenges the hierarchical oppositions around which imperialist “civilizing missions” are invariably constructed: the binaries light/darkness, civilization/savagery, white man/black man, the implicit privileging of the former terms over the latter, and the subsequent conflation of these and other oppositions under the meta-opposition Europe/Africa. By invoking Europe's “dark” past, Marlow blurs the boundary between the opposing terms, thereby implicitly calling into question the validity of the other oppositions—views shared, no doubt, by his immediate audience: Europe as a place of “civilization,” “enlightenment,” and so on.

Soon after this initial interrogation of terms, however, Marlow qualifies himself, as his more rational (or rather, rational-izing) side takes over; no sooner has he begun his comparison of ancient Roman and contemporary British empires than he constructs his own hierarchical opposition, apparently in the latter's defense: “Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this. What saves us is efficiency—the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force—nothing to boast of” (HD 21, italics mine). But this opposition of colonists/conquerors, with its implicit privileging of a European “civilizing mission” over the mere plundering of invaders, is one that Marlow already knows to be inadequate; hence his immediate undermining of his own just-constructed terms:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. …

(HD 21, italics mine)

Here Marlow effectively gives the lie to his own construction, to his own complicity in the lie of empire. By erasing the opposition between colonist and conqueror, Marlow reveals the only difference between the terms to be that of “an idea”; the sacking of another culture is “redeemed,” or rather, rationalized, by “the idea” of an Aufklärung, of a “civilizing mission”—in short, by the same hierarchical logics that he has just called into question. Paradoxically then, Marlow accepts into his narrative the premises and discourses of empire even as he denounces them, revealing a state of ambivalence that permeates the narrative.

Seen in this context, it is no wonder that Marlow's immediate audience shows little enthusiasm at the prospect of “hear[ing] about one of [his] inconclusive experiences” (HD 21). It is perhaps in response to his circuitous style of storytelling that one listener (the nameless “narrator”) chastises Marlow for appearing “so often unaware of what [his] audience would best like to hear” (21); if so, then this passage from Conrad's preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus” must be seen as particularly instructive:

it is only through an unremitting, never-discouraged care for the shape and the ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to color; and the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.

(“Narcissus” xi, italics mine)

If Conrad's “unremitting, never-discouraged care” for his written language extends to his prefaces, then there can be nothing fortuitous about the appearance of the word “play” here. The term goes back at least as far as the philosopher Friedrich von Schiller, for whom play (or Spieltrieb, the play-drive) was the consummation of a dialectical opposition between intuition and abstraction, between the sensuous drive (Stofftrieb) and the formal drive (Formtrieb). For Schiller it is “play and play alone, which of all man's states and conditions is the one which makes him whole and unfolds both sides of his nature at once” (“Letters” 422); and it is precisely in the sense of “play” as an erasing or blurring of oppositions (in the name of a higher “drive” as it were) that the term operates in both the above preface and Heart of Darkness. For this opposition of formal/sensuous, with its implicit privileging of the formal (i.e., rational), takes its place with the other hierarchical binaries against which Marlow—and Conrad—must struggle.

But there is yet another, more latent aspect of play to be considered. For if to play is to erase or blur oppositions, it is also to disrupt or rupture models of thought in which the oppositions are imbedded; play, in this sense, is the disruption of hierarchies. Seen in this context, we can now understand why the concept of play is important in Conrad: for it is by interrogating the language that he would put an end to its non-reflexive or uncritical—thus “careless”—usage. What Conrad hopes to achieve by this discursive rupture is spelled out later in the same preface:

My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts; encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand; and, perhaps, also that bit of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.

(“Narcissus” xi, italics mine)

Without returning to previously-mentioned contradictions inherent in this task of illuminating darkness, we can nevertheless begin to understand the problematic of this task as it applies to Marlow. Certainly Marlow's “truth” in Heart of Darkness is, at best, an ambivalent one (as the very concept of an ambivalent truth, I am aware, is itself contradictory); yet Conrad's awareness of the possibility of an antagonistic relation with his audience, and the representation of such an antagonistic relation in his text, should not be taken lightly. It is significant in this regard that Marlow is often referred to as an unreliable narrator, one whom a reader must be careful not to trust entirely. To the extent that any first-person narrator is always more or less situated within the text, thereby making their assumed authority problematic, such a critical caveat is a point well-enough taken, if not terribly interesting. But Marlow assumes no such authority; he is, at times, quite bewildered by his experience, a state made apparent by his numerous and self-reflexive admonishments to his audience about the opacity of the tale. It is, then, Marlow's self-reflexive, digressive way of “spinning yarns” that singles him out as being unreliable: “to [Marlow] the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine” (HD 20). Although this is among the best-known (and most overcited) passages in Heart of Darkness, it is nevertheless relevant here as an example of what Conrad called “play.” Additionally, this representation of play is always caught up in tension; that is, it is the narrative's tendency toward play that makes Marlow's audience uncomfortable.

That the above assessment of Marlow's storytelling (made by the text's overarching narrator) is apparently shared by his other listeners is apparent, most notably in Marlow's various asides to them through the text. Marlow's interruptions of his narrative to directly address this audience accomplish little in terms of narrative progression, save to make explicit for readers the “faint uneasiness” his narrative inspires in his listeners (HD 42). The tension comes closest to antagonism, however, as Marlow grows frustrated over his audience's apathy: “Why do you sigh in this beastly way, somebody? Absurd? Well, absurd. Good Lord! must't a man ever—” (HD 63), and so on. Marlow is unable to satisfy their impatience with his narrative, however; all he can muster by way of protest is an exasperated “Absurd be—exploded!” (HD 63), confirming, as Bonney observes, Marlow's frustration at trying to share an experience that he cannot articulate.

But beyond this narrative tension, however, Marlow's most profound sense of contradiction remains internal, locked as it is within the confines of his discourse—or rather, his growing realization of its inadequacies when faced with the nightmare of empire. Marlow's belief in the “noble cause” of the imperialist project, already qualified from the text's opening pages, becomes increasingly complicated as Marlow attempts to articulate his experiences. Even before his voyage to the Congo, Marlow already feels ambivalent about the prospect, explaining his “slight uneas[iness]” at entering what he sees as “some conspiracy—I don't know—something not quite right” (HD 25). Caught between his complicity in “the possession of such a magnificent dependency” (26) and his aunt's arrant enthusiasm for the “civilizing mission” of empire (“‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways’” [26]), Marlow grows increasingly uncomfortable with a rhetoric he already suspects of being delusory.

Marlow's suspicions about the imperialist project—and his own complicity with it—intensify with his increasing proximity to the “dark” continent. Additionally, Marlow's ambivalence about the “noble cause” and his role of “emissary” within it becomes full-blown upon his first close encounter with the indigenous Other:

A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. … but these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea.

(HD 30, italics mine)

For Marlow, the complete discrepancy between signifier and signified is irreconcilable. The words “enemies” and “criminals” are clearly inadequate to describe what is going on here, what is being done to the black men in the name of the “noble cause”; yet he cannot bring himself to comment on the scene other than elliptically, likely because he lacks the appropriate words: terms like “slavery” and “oppression,” although certainly known to Marlow, represent concepts that cannot enter any discussion of empire without the necessity of confronting the true nature of the beast—a truth which, if the imperialist project is to succeed, must be avoided. Having encountered this frontier of language and empire, Marlow's ambivalence here hints toward his complicity. And then he sees this:

Behind this raw matter one of the reclaimed, the product of the new forces at work, strolled despondently, carrying a rifle by its middle. He had a uniform jacket with one button off, and seeing a white man on the path, hoisted his weapon to his shoulder with alacrity. … He was speedily reassured, and with a large, white, rascally grin, and a glance at his charge, seemed to take me into partnership in his exalted trust. After all, I also was a part of the great cause of these high and just proceedings.

(HD 30, italics mine)

As regards his uncritical view of empire, this moment is for Marlow the beginning of the end; this moment of recognition, in which he is caught in the knowing gaze of the “reclaimed” guard, confirms his fears: not only is the business of empire, this “conquest of the earth,” as monstrous as he had suspected, but his own synonymity with it is unmistakable—whether or not he believes himself so, he is clearly seen by the guard as “a part of the great cause.” Seen in this context, the bitter sarcasm of Marlow's final words above (as italicized) is palpable; it is the self-mockery of one who has seen not only the monstrousness of the “hollow sham” of empire but his own unwitting role as accomplice—as stooge. It is this moment of self-discovery, this realization of coincidence with the “flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly” (HD 30)—the necessity of articulating his intuition of the imperialist horror combined with the impossibility of exposing it outright—that fuels Marlow's sense of ambivalence. Small wonder, then, that his immediate response is one of paralysis: “For a moment I stood appalled, as by a warning” (31): to acknowledge the horror explicitly would be, for Marlow, to completely undermine not only his sense of moral propriety—in short, of good and evil—but the entire Western logos on which those beliefs are based. Despite Marlow's self-professed hatred of lies, then (significantly, he hates lies because they “appall” him [41]; hence his moral paralysis here), the “merry dance of death and trade” (28) plays on, unabated.


There are two kinds of relationship to the past—one which derives from the past, and one which is profound dialogue with the past (one which asks impertinent questions of the past).

—Wilson Harris

There is much in Wilson Harris's prefaces to his novels that may prove useful as we read the postcolonial frontier, that “threshold of capacity” to which Heart of Darkness points yet does not attain. We can begin to understand what it is that Harris values about Conrad's “strange genius” (“Frontier” 161) by reading Harris's prefaces and criticism, in which he is primarily concerned with the ontological and metaphysical questions addressed in his fiction; the prefacing note to Palace of the Peacock is particularly relevant for his notion of “the mixed metaphysic” (Palace 10), a concept that stands in sharp contrast to the monolithic prerogative of Marlow's metaphysical outlook. The dismantling of oppositional logics which was so problematic in Heart of Darkness is for Harris a condition to be desired, as he constructs a fiction “that seeks to consume its biases through many resurrections of paradoxical imagination” (Palace 9). For Harris, then, to seek paradox is to invoke contradiction without giving in to the reconciling impulse, without attempting to account for it in terms of oppositions and hierarchies; it is, in other words, to find a space in the monolithic categorizations of Western thought in which to reinscribe Otherness—to find a place, in short, for the other as other.

A useful enough way to begin reading this disruption of the discourses of empire—this fundamental shift from the “problematic” paradox of Conrad's fiction to the meaningful paradox of Harris's—is to look at the difference in narration between two otherwise very similar events. Soon after Marlow's first close encounter with the African Other comes this well-known passage, Marlow's description of native workers dying in a grove:

They were dying slowly—it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now—nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. … These moribund shapes were as free as air—and nearly as thin.

(HD 31)

Clearly this is, for Marlow, a horrible sight. But more relevant for our purposes here is the way in which the dying figures are described: they are “nothing earthly,” but rather mere “black shadows” of life that are as free and thin as air. Life is, in this context, represented as being earthly, as having a certain vigor of substance which the “moribund shapes” in the grove clearly lack; the binary logic at work here, represented by the oppositions substance/shadow, vigor/listlessness, active/passive, etc., again implicitly privilege of the former terms over the latter, culminating in the conflation of oppositions under the overarching opposition life/death. Under this oppositional model, then, what horrifies Marlow is not only the physical condition of the workers (they are clearly suffering a great deal) but also their deviation from a state he, a Westerner, would associate with “life.”

In this context, Harris's portrayal in his fiction of extra-earthly manifestations of life, his depiction of various transubstantiations and transmutations of life-forms considered by conventional Western logics to be “not of this world,” is representative of his project of “going beyond” the logic of empire, of crossing the Conradian frontier in search of a suitably “mixed metaphysic.” To illustrate this point more concretely, we might turn to descriptions from Palace of the Peacock of events not far removed from Marlow's experience in the grove: “In this remarkable filtered light it was not men of vain flesh and blood I saw toiling laboriously and meaninglessly, but active ghosts whose labour was indeed a flitting shadow over their shoulders as living men would don raiment and cast it off in turn to fulfill the simplest necessity of being” (Palace 33, italics mine); and later: “[Vigilance] rubbed his eyes since he felt he saw what no human mind should see, a spidery skeleton crawling to the sky. … Vigilance could not make up his bemused mind whether it was Wishrop climbing there or another version of Jennings' engine in the stream. He shrank from the image of his hallucination that was more radical and disruptive of all material conviction than anything he had ever dreamt to see” (Palace 82). I have cited two separate passages here to illustrate a difference, not only between Harris's description and Conrad's but also between moments within Harris's own text. As regards the first passage above, we can say that its imagery bears a more than passing similarity to that in Heart of Darkness, with one strategic difference: unlike Conrad's listless shadows, Harris's ghosts are “active”; that is, Harris's figures, however unearthly, are not only not (yet) casualties of work but also carry a certain sense of agency—they retain the ability to “cast off” the burdens of labor. That the crew members retain the properties of active life in their otherworldly state serves to effectively undermine the oppositional logic prevalent in Marlow's narration.

The second passage is a more radical departure, yet also bears a certain kinship with Marlow's “appalled” narration. Certainly what Vigilance sees—a “hallucination” of his dead co-worker's skeleton “crawling to the sky”—is more shocking than even Marlow's vision of shadowy death. Yet given the opportunity, Conrad's beleaguered narrator would likely contend that he too experienced something that “no human mind should see”; and indeed, the horrific nature of Marlow's experiences is, to a great extent, what fuels his own ambivalence and that of the narrative. Once again, however, there is an important and strategic difference: whereas in Conrad the lack of an “earthly” substance is a sign of weakness, of exhaustion and defeat, in Harris's text Wishrop's metamorphosis into a “spidery skeleton” is depicted as a “transubstantiation” (Palace 83)—if not a triumph, then certainly an escape from the physical trials of the journey into another existence, another realm of possibility. Additionally, this blurring of boundaries between the dead and the living is not limited to Wishrop; by this point in the text, not only has the first-person narrator inexplicably disappeared, but other characters are experiencing profound transformations: Vigilance's “immateriality and mysterious substantiality” (82), Donne's suspicion that he is no longer “in the land of the living” (83), and the crew boat's transformation into a “skeleton craft” (83) are all representations of a reality alien to Marlow and, by extension, Conrad himself—the frontier of a world whose “multiple existences” are hopelessly beyond the bounds of Marlow's English rationality. Which is not to say that Marlow's character is in any way static, as we have already seen, however cursorily, the processes by which he encounters the frontier of otherness; but while Conrad, through the experiences of his narrator, steps back from the brink, Harris takes us across, blurring the oppositional lines as we are carried into the multiple realities of a postcolonial world.

To better understand the nature of this frontier, this “doorway” into the postcolonial, we might take a look at Harris's own first encounter with an “alternate reality”; the passage is from Harris's own account of his first expedition into the interior of Guyana: “I had penetrated 150 miles. It seemed as if one had traveled thousands and thousands of miles, and in fact had traveled to another world, as it were, because one was suddenly aware of the fantastic density of place. One was aware of one's incapacity to describe it, as though the tools of language one possessed were inadequate” (“Talk” 58, italics mine). Certainly the resemblance to the crisis of language we have seen in Heart of Darkness is striking; like Marlow, Harris here lacks “the tools of language” to adequately contain the reality of his experience. Yet faced with this and other encounters with Guyana's interior, Harris nevertheless is eventually able to construct fictional narratives that begin to convey the “fantastic density”—what for Marlow is clearly the daunting Otherness—of this non-Western reality. Which is not to say that what Harris does can remotely be called “realism” (significantly, the term “magic realism” has been applied to his work); on the contrary, it is paradoxically to the extent to which Harris's fiction diverges from (European) conventions of realism that it succeeds in representing Guyana's otherness.

In the essay from which I have cited the above passage, Harris goes on to discuss his concern with critiquing what he calls the “static cultural imperative” (65) of Western thought; what this project entails is the constant calling into question of established (or better, imposed) oppositional modes of thought, structures which deny the polyglot nature of postcolonial reality. There is much in this very valuable essay (too long, alas, to be included in its entirety) that could be usefully applied here, from Harris's positing of a “subjective imagination” to disrupt the monolithic processes of so-called scientific “objectivity” to his assertion of the value of “play” within the discourses of resistance; the passage that I will cite, however, is relevant here for Harris's reference to texts which contain the seeming roots—the origins, if we may be given leave to make provisional use of such a loaded term—of what may seem a process of “unrooting”: “One would have to turn to Melville to sense the beginnings of this kind of thing in the novel, to a poet like Coleridge, or a novelist like Conrad. It is something that is impertinent to the homogeneous novel, though immensely consistent with the subjective crisis of twentieth-century man” (“Talk” 61, italics mine). If we can put aside for the moment Harris's problematic positing of “beginnings” (such a term, with its implied opposing term “conclusions” or “fulfillments,” brings with it an assumption of completeness or closure which is inappropriate here) and his misogynistic reference to modern “man” (a term which undermines the profoundly feminine dimensions within postcolonial thought), we may nevertheless begin to envision, if not anything so naive as a fixed origin, then at least a place (or rather, an instance) where a frontier may have been breached; we may, that is, begin to identify the general location or event where this rupturing of the ontological frontier of the postcolonial may have occurred. If this is so, then questions of homogeneity and “impertinence” assume a most radical significance: why, for instance, assuming the existence of such a thing as a “homogeneous” novel (for even in Harris's example of Jane Austen a case may be made for a subsumed other), is a critique of this type of fiction equated with crisis?

An answer for such questions may lie in the very terms “impertinence” and “heterogeneity,” in what such terms invariably imply. In Austen, to return to Harris's example, we find Otherness very carefully bracketed, subsumed within the patterns and premises of the narrative; by so doing, the text achieves a kind of sophistic homogeneity, specious because the monolithic exigencies of such texts attempt to belie or mask the existence of Others who nevertheless are always already there. The success of any act of “impertinence,” then, lies precisely in its interrogation of purportedly “homogeneous” texts, in its ability to call into question texts that attempt to conflate their Others under the oppositional logics of Same-ness; it is a question, then, of exhuming difference, of producing (or finding) a fissure in the construction of Sameness through which its previously interred Others may emerge.

The fact that such fissures are more readily apparent in texts like Heart of Darkness is illustrative of their latent heterogeneity—of their proximity, if you will, to the margins/frontiers of Otherness which the literatures of postcolonialism are now beginning to attain. In order to better understand the situatedness of these texts—where they stand in relation to both each other and their shared frontier of Otherness—we might look to a passage from another of the writers cited in Harris's essay, one whose engagement with Otherness, however inexpert, predates Conrad's:

As it must not, so genius cannot, be lawless: for it is even this that constitutes it genius—the power of acting creatively under laws of its own origination. How then comes it that … whole nations have combined in unhesitating condemnation of our great dramatist [Shakespeare], as a sort of African nature, rich in beautiful monsters, as a wild heath where islands fertility look the greener from the surrounding waste, where the loveliest plants now shine out among unsightly weeds and now are choked by their parasitic growth, so intertwined that we cannot disentangle the weed without snapping the flower?

(Coleridge “Shakespeare” 473, italics mine)

Without embarking on a detailed dismantling of oppositions here (and there plenty to deconstruct: nature/culture, domestic/exotic, civilized/barbaric, for starters), we can see how far this language is from Harris's postcolonial sensibilities (and even from Conrad's colonial aesthetic). The most damning thing we can say about this passage, from Samuel Coleridge's well-known defense of Shakespeare, is that it denies Africa a teleology; that is, the most striking opposition at work is one privileging Shakespeare's “ordered” (i.e., homogeneous) representations of (Western) nature over an allegedly aimless, self-destructive African wilderness. The obvious premise here—the subtext, if you will, behind Coleridge's analogy—is that Africa is a wilderness lacking order, wanting for the humanizing “disentanglement” of an enlightened (ideally European) civilizing plan; and it is precisely this kind of rhetoric that contributed to the founding of the notion of the “civilizing mission” of European imperialism—the “great cause” of which Marlow, however sardonically, believes himself a part.

Upon confronting the wilderness himself, however, Marlow finds it to be less passive than he may have originally believed: “Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, and impenetrable forest. … And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention” (HD 48–49, italics mine). Marlow goes on to describe the jungle's “vengeful aspect” (49), a dimension of silent rage that is coherent and palpable; for him, then, the jungle does have a sense of purpose—and it is decidedly malevolent. That Marlow experiences the force of an African nature in this way, moreover, aptly illustrates both his realization of a representative Otherness and his perceived oppositional relation to it. Because although Marlow has, by this point, realized a margin/frontier of Otherness, he remains wedded to one side of an oppositional “rational” mentality, and thus cannot but shrink back in foreboding at the possibility of rupture.

Finally, we come to Harris's Guyanese forest, where the vital multiplicity of Marlow's fears (one of which Coleridge cannot even conceive) begins to manifest. This passage comes relatively early in the text, before the boat crew's own experiences of transformation:

The solid wall of trees was filled with ancient blocks of shadow and with gleaming hinges of light. Wind rustled the leafy curtains through which masks of living beard dangled as low as the water and the sun. My living eye was stunned by inversions of the brilliancy and the gloom of the forest in a deception and hollow and socket.

And also:

A sigh swept out of the gloom of the trees, unlike any human sound as a mask is unlike flesh and blood. The unearthly, half-gentle, half-shuddering whisper ran along the tips of graven leaves. Nothing appeared to stir. And then the whole forest quivered and sighed and shook with violent instantaneous relief in a throaty clamour of waters as we approached the river again.

(both Palace 28)

Clearly there is a profound metamorphosis, both mimetic and teleological, that takes place between Marlow's narration and this one. Unlike Coleridge's perception of mere disorder and Marlow's vision of a monolithic brooding, Harris's depiction reveals a multiplicity of life that contains the previous descriptions as it transcends them; for while this forest is, certainly, at least as perilous as the one portrayed in Conrad's text, it represents with equal clarity the possibilities for new and heterogeneous community—one that surpasses binary perceptions of the world in order to embrace all manner of paradoxical realities. Indeed, the characters' reactions of “surprise and terror” (29) are fleeting ones, and by the text's end they embrace “the inseparable moment within [them]selves of all fulfillment and understanding” (116) that comes with the overcoming of fear and the crossing of frontiers. To call this an ending, however, would be misleading; for the rupturing of margins/frontiers is always an open-ended business, and we must, after all, continue to resist the monolithic imperatives of completeness and closure. What now remains to be addressed, however cursorily, is the future of the rupture, of this post-deconstructive moment of fissure.


Within the concept of the new postcolonialism, then, there is a question to which we must return: what form(s) can this post-imperialist literature take? Can we, after all, write (and read) a new and radical postcolonial literature that goes beyond the oppositional logic of the Western natio, that escapes the self-defeating reductions of “us” and “them”? We can, I think, start to address these questions by saying that the rupture to which I have been referring must begin not in the center (as we have seen, the center is infinitely substitutable) but on the margins; but even this is not enough, for what has in the history of empire been seen as the margin must come to be known as something else:

To think of ourselves as marginal or marginalized is to put us forever at the edge and not center stage. The word margin, however, has another meaning which I prefer to think of when it is used as a descriptive term for managed peoples—it also means frontier. And when we think of ourselves as being on the frontier, our perspective immediately changes. Our position is no longer one in relation to the managers, but we now face outward, away from them, to the undiscovered space and place up ahead which we are about to uncover—spaces in which we can empower ourselves.

(Philip 300)

The substitution of “frontier” for “margin” seems, as Marlene Nourbese Philip points out, harmless enough; it would seem, additionally, to represent a mere continuation in what has been an endless series of substitutions of center for center. The implications inherent in such a radical shift, however, are both profound and inescapable; for what it implies is nothing less than a complete reinscription of positions, literally a turning away from the homogeneous totalizations of the past. And if we cannot yet see where the frontier may lead us—what this “undiscovered space and place up ahead” might be—we have at least found a place to begin, a place from which to start reading (and writing) a future for the Caribbean which may reconcile Harris's term “meaningful paradox” to its contradictorily coherent parts (i.e., the one of “meaning” with the many of “paradox”). The future of the postcolonial enterprise is, from the viewpoint of the margin/frontier on which we stand, still to be written and read. The task remains before us, and in a sense will always be so, as we proceed toward the thinking and reading of ever more meaningful paradoxes.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa” (1977). Joseph Conrad: Third World Perspectives. Ed. Robert Hamner. Washington: Three Continents, 1990.

Bonney, William W. Thorns and Arabesques: Contexts for Conrad's Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Clifford, Hugh, C. M. G. “The Genius of Mr. Joseph Conrad” (1904). Joseph Conrad: Third World Perspectives. Ed. Robert Hamner. Washington: Three Continents, 1990.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Shakespeare's Judgment Equal to His Genius” (1836). Critical Theory Since Plato. Rev. ed. Ed. Hazard Adams. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1992.

Joyce Sparer Adler (essay date summer 1997)

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SOURCE: Adler, Joyce Sparer. “Wilson Harris: An Introduction.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 9–11.

[In the following essay, Adler provides a brief overview of Harris's works and career, highlighting his main themes and literary achievements.]

Harris has done so much to unblock the Western mind-set. But even now genius is not totally inhibited by all the counter-forces of the world in crisis. Harris may be one sign of a changing wind.

—Kathleen Raine

All generations are blended: and heaven and earth of one kin … the nations and families, flocks and folds of the earth. … All things form one whole.

—Herman Melville, Mardi

The whole crew was one spiritual family living and dying together in a common grave out of which they had sprung again from the same soul and womb as it were. …

—Wilson Harris, Palace of the Peacock

Wilson Harris is usually described as a Caribbean writer. He should also be thought of as a South American writer. His early years leading government surveys in the interior of Guyana and his contact with the Amerindians—their culture, myths, and condition of being forgotten by the dominant culture—deepened his imagination and concern about all those nameless people in South America who, since the period of the conquistadores, have remained lost in written history. But, above all, Harris has to be thought of as a universal writer, not only because of his concern for all women and men of all times and places but because his imagination plunges into the depths of the earth and also out into the universe. His implied question is: Why must we build bridges between cultures, times, places, earth, and space? Our day is filled with potentialities for a totally destructive human future or a truly creative one. His Christ figures may be of pre-Christian times or non-Christian cultures of any time or land. He speaks of the pagan past from which we all have come. His novels may be set in places other than Guyana, but wherever they are set, Harris has all of us in mind. He has hope that humanity will begin to change and re-create itself. Humanity in his fiction is “at the crossroads.”

Although Harris's work gives evidence of enormous reading of the work of others, it is fundamentally unlike that of anyone else. Awakening the imagination of his readers beyond its usual limits, he challenges us to think in entirely new ways. His style—if we can consider anything so honest a “style”—is sometimes breathtaking, uniting all the arts and senses, sometimes bare or scientific. At times there are abrupt and, for a while, puzzling narrative switches. His recent works contain many “analytical dialogues,” as Hena Maes-Jelinek calls them. This is true of the passage from Jonestown, his new novel, included in this issue. Harris conceives of his novels as epics, a form he believes need not be lost in a remote past. Some critics have divided Harris's work into periods. To me it has always seemed to be one continuing and growing work, never possible to complete. Other critics today think so as well, although Harris's style has changed and his philosophy has become more probing. The reader of Harris's work cannot drift tranquilly along with the narrative. Every word is necessary, almost all are resonant in their suggestiveness. Symbols, charged with new or enriched meanings, reappear. Since each character represents the potentialities of humanity, we who read are participants in the narrative and the thought/feeling of the work.

So Harris's novels need to be read with utter attention. His is an integrated imagery of the arts and sciences. The appeal is to the whole person—inner, outer, mind, heart, “soul”—and to aspects of ourselves of which we are unaware. That is why the novels take the form of dreams, dreams being freer than conventional thinking and feeling. Harris's sense of time—of the past alive in the present and of the seeds of the future in both—is central. Most of his characters have names from the past or are symbolic—e.g., Penelope, Amaryllis, Poseidon, Faust, Bone, Hope, Abram—but their nature has changed to show the negative and positive potentialities of humanity. The implied question is: Which of these will we develop for a changed future? The creative or the destructive? Harris calls his opus a comedy. Although he does have an irrepressible sense of humor, his use of comedy resembles Dante's in The Divine Comedy. All the characters, representing humanity, are dead. When they are “resurrected,” how will they (we) think, feel, act? None of the characters represents a static extreme of good or evil. In the unforeseeable future things may be different. For example, a representative character, the female Emma, may become archbishop. If there are no true changes, the human race will end—all possibility of resurrection gone. But Harris retains his hope that we will fundamentally change in time, that the “soul,” by which he means the hidden unity of humanity, will prevail.

Harris's introduction to literature began when, as a small child, he found books in his dead father's trunk and his mother taught him to read from them. (His introduction to the Odyssey came at that early age.) He was later to read them anew and reinterpret them in his own revisionary imagination, investing them with new significance for our crucial time. To help us see differently, unusual things happen: there are marriages between people not only of different places but of different times; people other than he are the writers of the novels—or are they other people within him?

Experiences in life that impressed him deeply have given his novels their startling titles and symbolism, as exemplified by Palace of the Peacock,The Four Banks of the River of Space, and Resurrection at Sorrow Hill. His sensitivity to the oneness of human life, past and present, and to our environment stems from the years in the rain forests and his dialogues with nature. He questions the rocks whose markings tell of their past, mountain ranges that give evidence of the time when they were under oceans, rivers that relate where they have been and why their paths have changed—all giving answers presenting new mysteries. At the center of it all is “the frail heartbeat” of humankind.

At the age of thirty-eight, Harris left what was at that time British Guyana to go to London. He has lived for more than thirty years in the United Kingdom. He and his poet and playwright wife Margaret, born in Scotland, live in Essex. They have traveled extensively since his first novel, Palace of the Peacock, was published in the sixties. Besides his twenty novels, all put out by Faber and Faber, he has written much poetry, one short play, numerous critical essays, the texts of talks abroad, and a long book of criticism published by Greenwood Press, The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination. (Note: the word cross-cultural implying bridges between cultures; the word multicultural often implies treating cultures as unbridged islands.) This theme is the main emphasis in his work. He has been invited to speak and has taught briefly in many parts of the world. In 1992 he received Italy's Mondello Prize for Fiction. He has been awarded Guyana's main literature prize. In the U.S. he has lectured at Yale, the Universities of Buffalo, Texas, and Iowa, among others, and has been a California Regents Professor.

Wilson Harris, like Melville, can be viewed from apparently endlessly different angles. The essays here are different and yet enrich each other. They are part of the ongoing project of opening up the work of this most universal and most human of authors.