Wilson HarriS: Dreaming to change the world; writing to change our dreams

By Denise de Caires Narain
Stabroek News
April 1, 2001

He seemed veiled. What a veil normality is when it turns into an unpredicatable door into unknown recesses and lost resources. (Wilson Harris, The Dark Jester)

Wilson Harris celebrated his eightieth birthday on March 24, 2001. His latest novel, The Dark Jester has just recently been published; it is his twenty-third novel. A pretty remarkable record by any standards. I had the privilege, with David de Caires, of meeting and interviewing Wilson Harris in September last year in Chelmsford where he lives with his wife, Margaret. He is, indeed, a remarkable man whose passionate commitment to challenging our everyday ways of apprehending the world is both unsettling and inspiring.

Wilson Harris was born in New Amsterdam, of Amerindian, African, Indian and English parentage, in 1921. He matriculated from Queen's College in 1938, worked as a river and land surveyor in the interior of Guyana for many years and then left for the U.K. in 1959. Although he has lived in the U.K. since leaving Guyana, on hearing him speak, one is struck immediately by his distinctly Guyanese accent; years of living in England have not eroded the salty timbre of his voice. Years of living in England have also not eroded his profound commitment to memorializing Guyana in his writing.

While Harris had had some of his writing published in Kyk-over-al before leaving Guyana, he was aware from early on that his chosen style of writing was out of kilter with the demands of nationalist activism which required politically-committed writing and realist discursive modes. Harris, like other West Indian writers in the 1950s and 1960s, had had a colonial education (he studied ancient Greek and gained a distinction in Latin, for example), and so he was fully aware of the symbolic weight of certain 'cultures' and the ways in which English literature, in particular, was used to legitimize and buttress England's economic and political power in British Guiana. 'Books', in this context, provided evidence of England's cultural superiority and, simultaneously, denied the realities and subjectivities of its colonial subjects. For Harris, it was not enough to 'write back to the centre' by describing alternative Guyanese realities and experiences in his novels as many other West Indian novelists were doing. The challenge to the hegemony of English culture, in his approach, requires a more profound challenge to the very structures through which realities are apprehended and represented and through which meanings are made possible in the first place.

What Harris offers, then, is a form of writing in which conventional ways of representing time, space, and other 'realities' as discretely bounded entities, were profoundly contested. The reader does not find in Harris's fiction familiarly recognizeable 'characters' either, nor any of the comforting 'handles' which might help in negotiating one's way through a novel. Instead, Harris's novels immerse the reader in a world in which several historical moments, geographical places and identities are suspended simultaneously in a complex and detailed web of fictions. The reader needs, in a sense, to learn to read all over again in order to respond to Harris's texts for, at the level of both theme and form, his novels insist on penetrating the habitual masks through which we conventionally read the world. The well-known Harris scholar, Hena Maes-Jelinek, argues that Harris's fiction is important in persistently rehearsing strategies which perform a series of important 'unveilings':

The pentration of masks to unravel deeply buried and unconscious residues of individual and historical experiences; the need to trace and elucidate real motivations behind paradoxical or deceptive appearances; the presentation of characters associated with carnival but also representative of the sharp contrasts to be found in poor and/or colonial socieities.

In doing so, it is important to note that Harris is writing against the grain of the tradition of the English novel and the nascent tradition of the West Indian novel. As Kenneth Ramchand puts it in one of the first accounts of West Indian fiction, The West Indian Novel and Its Background:

Harris's refusal to see the discovery of the African heritage as the solution to West Indian problems arises in part from his conviction of the unity of all men, and in part out of his habitually critical attitude to over-simplifications of experience.

In the interview we conducted with Wilson Harris, he spoke of the patience and perseverence required in remaining committed to his literary project, "heart-breaking at times," he suggested, and he described how he had had to abandon two novels before being able to start writing his first novel, Palace of the Peacock. He also spoke of being so distracted when he was told by his publishers, Faber, that they were going to publish Palace of the Peacock, that he declined the opportunity to meet another author who was also then in the Faber building in London: T.S.Eliot! Faber have continued to publish all of his novels and Harris is grateful to their loyalty for he is aware that his challenging style means that his books are unlikely to be best-sellers. Harris's tenacity and patience in continuing to pursue his commitment to challenging normative frameworks for understanding our world, in some 23 novels, is remarkable. Speaking to him, I was also struck by the passion with which he continues to express these views and the breadth of his vision.

One of the first questions posed to Harris, in the interview for Stabroek News, concerned the issue of literacy in the Caribbean. What follows is the bulk of Harris's response:

Literacy is not a regrettable accident caused by a failed response in society. One of the consequences of the middle passage was that Africans were forbidden by rules to learn to read - we've forgotten how such obscure motivations and compulsions would give an involuntary momentum to illiteracy. Mid-nineteenth-century and twentieth-century Guyana's heterogeneity was ignored by the divide and rule politics of English colonialism. The imaginative sensibility was taught via literature by Dickens, Austen, Hardy; excellent in their way, but it must be remembered that the characterization in such novels concentrated on English families - which may seem odd when one considers that the British Empire, on which the sun never set, encompassed a large body of diverse peoples. Yet no European novelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ventured profoundly out of their strict linear home premises in fiction, though they ruled the world. Literacy then functioned to achieve an order that offered little chance for sensitive persons to weigh the dangers and the cross-cultural possibilities in a community of different ethnicities: Indian, African, Chinese, Portuguese and others. Furthermore, one must remember that British Guiana was a marginal territory; it was the only English speaking domain in South America. Marginality is a profound phenomenon that questions endemic polarizations or closures of boundaries. To be marginal does not mean irrelevancy. Far from it. We have seen with the rise of the Latin American novel in the twentieth-century that marginality opens up possibilities of creative self-judgement of others in peoples who have been locked away in ghettoes. Marginality is a moving centre, so to speak, which brings into play challenging themes that remain invisible within dominant and ruling centres... The unusual quantum discoveries that are neglected in the European novel form bear, I think on a language of profundity and diversity beyond the fixed form we take for granted. It seems to me, therefore, that illiteracy is not a mere social accident - it is an omen that runs into the light of civilization. We need to come to it with a sense of the inadequacy and the partiality of the literary forms we take for granted as absolutes. Caribbean subjects must yield to deeper mediums wherein they see themselves as subject to change, creative and re-creative change, and not as the dominating fixed centre from which to exercise judgement. Or else they will continue to impose a seal, an involuntary seal, perhaps, on the relation between the unconscious, the sub-conscious and the conscious layers in divided societies.

Clearly, here, Harris moves beyond the more literal interpretation of 'literacy' to probe its deeper reverberations in Caribbean cultures. It is simply not enough, he suggests, to respond to the issue of literacy in a technical way by mechanically teaching people to read and write. Harris suggests that the processes and literary forms through which normative definitions of the human subject have been constructed must be acknowledged and other, more complex and diverse expressions of subjectivity have to be explored. What Harris is talking about here is a 'literacy of the imagination'; one in which the Caribbean subject will refuse to take refuge in the comforting stereotype of the happy-go-lucky carnival player of popular mythology. The Caribbean subject in the post-colonial era, Harris suggests, has allowed historical deprivations to define and limit him; wearing the mask of 'self-righteous deprivation' has not allowed him to see the many other potentialites which lie dormant within him. In his essay Tradition and the West Indian Novel, Harris argued:

What in my view is remarkable about the West Indian in depth is a sense of subtle links, the series of subtle and nebulous links which are latent within him, the latent ground of old and new personalities. This is a very difficult view to hold, I grant, because it is not a view which consolidates, which invests in any way in the consolidation of popular character.

Harris's project, rehearsed in all his fictions, is to find a way to tap into and release the myriad traces of other humanities - across cultures and histories - which might make the world we inhabit a more truly humane place. His challenge to Caribbean peoples is to recognize that their significant location at the intersection of so many, diverse, cultures places them advantageously at the centre, rather than at the margins of such a project. The Guyanese poet, Fred d'Aguiar offers a poetic summary of Wilson Harris's achievement in altering our view of the world in his poem, Wilson Harris:

When he
opens his
butterfly season
sprouts in
Chelmsford's fields
The clouds
let down their ladders

sea and sky
and scorched earth and we
until heads
an elastic sky
I can thread
a needle
in this thick white night
You peel
the scales off
my eyes
help me see feelingly

In the first part of this article on Wilson Harris, I argued that Harris's fictions suggest that the West Indian, located at the intersection of a complex web of histories and cultures, is advantageously placed - despite, or, indeed, because of the violence and volatility of these histories - at the forefront of a redefinition of what it means to be fully human (and humane) in the twenty-first century. Of course, a preoccupation with 'history' features in many, many Caribbean texts. V.S.Naipaul, for example, frequently characterizes the West Indian as being shipwrecked by history. With none of the monuments to history which define a 'civilized' culture, Ralph Singh in Naipaul's, The Mimic Men, argues:

"To be born on an island like Isabella, an obscure transplantation, second-hand and barbarous, was to be born to disorder."

While Derek Walcott, in the poem, Laventille, offers a more compassionate account of the impact of the region's turbulent history on its people:

Something inside is laid wide like a wound,
some open passage that has cleft the brain,
some deep amnesiac blow. We left
somewhere a life we never found,
customs and gods that are not born again,
some crib, some grille of light
clanged shut on us in bondage, and
us from that world below us and beyond,
and in its swaddling cerements we're still

Many Caribbean writers have sought to address the 'deep amnesiac blow,' so powerfully evoked by Walcott, by attempting to remember and re-write the various histories which have shaped the region. Voyaging through memories - 'real' and imagined - writers such as Edward Kamau Brathwaite and David Dabydeen, for example, have mapped some of the region's cultural 'roots,' in Africa and India, in their poetic inscriptions of slavery and indentureship. Wilson Harris's engagement with History, however, requires us to understand that the 'amnesiac blow' may have generated deeper and more profound instances of 'forgetfulness'. What Harris's work suggests is that the preoccupation with identifying the violent wrongs of the Caribbean's history (bloody conquest, ruthless decimation of native peoples, the trauma of slavery, the oppressions of indentureship) has blunted the sensibility of the Caribbean subject. Locked into a way of seeing the world which relies entirely on 'realism' as the dominant interpretive framework, Harris suggests, has resulted in a binary view of oppressor and oppressed. In this view, the Caribbean subject takes refuge in his/her position as victim, embracing the mask of 'self-righteous deprivation' which forces the creative potentialities within us to remain dormant. There are omens and clues scattered throughout all histories and embedded in all cultures which we must be alert to if we are to refuse the relentless repetitions of what Harris calls the 'conquistadorial' impulse. Such 'clues' require us to respond more intuitively to our worlds - to 'see feelingly' - and to refuse familiar and complacent ways of reading our worlds and our histories.

In the interview conducted with Wilson Harris in Chelmsford in September, he elaborated on this notion of 'intuition':

"Intuition: when one knows what one does not appear to know, on the surface, in the ruling logic of the day. Some artists, therefore, were involved in associations, intuitive associations, that broke away from static linearities. Intuition arises from the unconscious into the subconscious and the conscious. Intuition is an age-old impulse of neglected traditions and may be found in ancient myths. There are people who tend nowadays to dismiss myth as irrelevant or as a lie. They ignore the profound evolving and self-critical textures of myth and they pursue a realistic line. Such realism is, however, one-sided. It has taken decades to bring people around the globe to acknowledge the ravages of global warming. The price of fuel is more realistically important to them than their connivance in global warming which contradicts the static clarity of their world. The tormented and desperately poor people of the Third World await their chance to achieve close similarities that correspond to the practices of the West. They turn away from the pollutions, the manipulations of land and water that have been occurring since the industrial revolution. They speak of freedom but what is freedom in the way they approach it but an invisible cornerstone of a citadel of waste and conquest."

Harris dramatizes, in his fiction, the processes and ways of seeing which might allow us to refuse the lure of such certainties about 'progress'; a notion of 'progress' in our 'modern age' invariably associated with the pursuit of material wealth, whatever the spiritual and environmental costs. In the first of his novels to be published, The Palace of the Peacock and in his latest novel, The Dark Jester, Harris retraces historically distant conquistadorial moments to tease out some of the contradictions and ambivalences of received histories. Both novels make use of dreamer- narrator figures who revisit mo-ments of incursion into the South American hinterland in pursuit of gold. In Palace of the Peacock, the contemporary story of a crew of men, (of varied ethnicities) attempting to get to Mariella, an Amerindian settlement upriver, reverberates with the stories of sixteenth and seventeenth century European explorers, like Ralegh and others, who penetrated the Guiana jungles in their quest for El Dorado, the city of gold. The narrating 'I'/eye glimpses some of these other stories all around him in the very landscape the crew travels through, prompting surprising insights:

"I shook my head a little, trying hard to free myself from this new obsession. Was it possible that one's memory and apprehension of a tragic event would strike one's spirit before the actual happening had been digested? Could a memory spring from nowhere into one's belly and experience?

I knew that if I was dreaming I could pinch myself awake. But an undigested morsel of recollection erased all present waking sensation and evoked a future time, petrifying and painful, confused and unjust."

Later on in the novel, the crew manage to force an old Amerindian woman to act as a guide as they continue in pursuit of the Mariella villagers who have fled the village. Harris does not romanticise the Amerindian woman, though she does represent an awesome power associated with the landscape:

"Her race was a vanishing one overpowered by the fantasy of a Catholic as well as a Protestant invasion. This cross she had forgiven and 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. [...] 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 passage, it seems to me, startles in ways which nudge the reader to 'see feelingly'; Harris's inscription of the woman and the landscape defamiliarizes both so that landscape and woman become 'living texts.' Where many Caribbean writers have named the landscape as a way of proclaiming its distinct Caribbeanness, Harris has persistently offered visions of a 'living landscape'; a landscape which bears the myriad traces of distant pasts and nuanced memories and which will deliver up these stories to the patient and intuitive looker/listener. In The Dark Jester, Harris again dramatizes the way in which, just as the body of the Dreamer-narrator can change its material properties, so, too, vast geological mutations have left their traces on the landscape he imagines Atahualpa imagining:

"I had been blown into gentle particles and I knew - with a nebulous, miracuous body - how Atahualpa gazed on the sea of Lake Titicaca.

He scanned the seas of memory, in which land appeared to be water, water land, trees living rock, valleys hills and mountains, in an instant, his last (or was it his first?) instant. (pp.62-3) startling images

Harris's response to the South American landscape offers an interestingly different 'take' to that of Derek Walcott's meditations in his Nobel Prize Award Speech, 'The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory' where he suggests:

"Visual surprise is natural in the Caribbean; it comes with the landscape, and faced with its beauty, the sigh of History dissolves. [...] The sigh of History rises over ruins, not over landscapes, and in the Antilles there are few ruins to sigh over, apart from the ruins of sugar estates and abandoned forts."

Harris's fiction testifies to the power of landscape to 'sigh' its histories to the attentive listener.

The Dark Jester, Harris's latest novel, again revisits the South American land-people- scape. In this text, the Dreamer-narrator, guided by the Dark Jester, both goes back in time and imagines the different futures which particular historical moments - this time it is the conquest of Peru by Pizarro - might have engendered.

As Maya Jaggi puts it in her review of the novel in The Guardian:

"The Dreamer is a prophet of the past, just as he has a 'memory of the future,' and the novel is filled with unheeded warnings - including the seeds of corruption sown long before Pizarro's advent and witnessed in the ruins of Machu Picchu or Espiritu Pampa, and in the Incas' final rout.

While Atahualpa is the victim of Pizzaro's greed and violent cunning, he (Atahualpa) has perpetuated violences of conquest himself, some of which, historians argue, made Pizarro's conquest and execution of Atahualpa possible. Towards the end of the novel, the Dreamer imagines being able to stop Cortez, Pizarro's European antecedent, in a manoeuvre which reiterates the novel's quietly poignant determination to take heed of history. In the extract below, it is Cortez's inability to see the limitations of his tightly-bounded world view, which resonates for the contemporary reader:

"Cortez was within time, within a close-fitting garment of time. Though he had travelled far from home there was no recognition of withoutness, of beyondness that could bring him to consider his present place, his present time, as partial and limited."

Here, the complacency and boundedness of Cortez's vision - his refusal to recognize difference (of the people and landscapes he encounters) as intimately connected to his own humanity - sends the reader back to the beginning of the novel and to questions about the 'blinding' effects of the pursuit of material wealth:

"Can we begin to heal such an ancient divide long before we knew ourselves as we are? Or must we face a sudden blow that will fall - as it fell on Pizarro - out of the animal elements in human form, or other cosmic disguise, to teach us the unteachable art - that what we melt in greed and lust melts us unpredicatably in ouselves?"

The Dark Jester opens with the Dreamer contemplating the question of history:

"I was prompted to ask: what is history? Is it an account of events set out and approved by a dominant culture? Or does history possess another door, other doors, to be opened by strangeness... To be opened as if such a door or doors within the self unlock themselves all of a sudden? The doors within the self witness to an architecture of which we know little."

As with Palace of the Peacock, the world of Harris's fiction is one in which boundaries of all kinds are questioned, transgressed and rendered unstable. At the same time, his work is rich with suggestive alternative ways for interpreting our world. Throughout the novel, there are glimmers and flashes of unexpected formulations, unexpected insights:

"One looks back into pre-Conquest spaces at stars one never saw before. They seem to exist here and now but they have vanished a million years ago. In a throng of mysteries I have to accept the birth of laughter in a pulsing thread of light. The Jester slipped down on Atahualpa's thread or noose and came to Earth."

There are, too, threads of mystery and wonder interspersed throughout the novel and an appeal to 'the spiritual' which offers a subtly contrapuntal corrective to the conquistadorial drive which the novel seeks to understand, as in the line, "Prayer is of the heart. It blows like a gentle wind. It is another element in the Void." Or, in the following:

"'Christ said,' the foreign voice in the Jester was saying, 'love your enemies. When he arose from the grave no one reconized him for a while. Even when they did there was uncertainty. That uncertainty lives with us today. He had become an enemy of complacency, of the uniform body. He is a stranger. Love your enemy, love the Stranger. It's the hardest thing to do.'"

Here, Harris invokes the familiar narrative of Christianity but 'translates' it for 'our time,' a time when difference has, most dramatically, resulted in the violence of 'ethnic cleansing.' What is so prescient about Harris's intervention is that he asks that we acknowledge the intimate ways in which we collude with the demonizing of difference. He suggests that it is only by scratching away at familiar, taken-for-granted 'truths' - about ourselves and others - that we can awaken to, and deliver, our full human potential. I agree with Paget Henry's suggestion, made in a special issue of Journal of Caribbean Literature devoted to Harris's work, that:

"The thematizing of this dynamic of the making, unmaking and remaking of the ego by spirit is the special contribution that Harris makes to Caribbean discourse on the self. [...] In other words, the realization of the values of any civilization, capitalist, socialist or post-colonial must be mediated by the spiritual adulthood of humanity."

The Guyanese poet, novelist and critic, David Dabydeen, also offers a succinct summary of Harris's achievements as a writer:

"I think that when Harris succeeds there is nothing like it in West Indian literature. There are sudden ideas which emerge from what he calls a half-eclipse. In the middle of a novel an idea will surface, or a few sentences will be thrown up which will suddenly open up a whole new way of seeing things. These fantastic illuminations always come with Harris. The prose is always being illuminated although it is so dark and dense sometimes. [...]

I think Harris has seen, in the deepest, most uncanny way, the potential of this fragmentation and or multiplicity. All his novels really are about a kind of quantum imagination, as Michael Gilkes calls it, where there are no physical laws that are rigid. There are no identities which cannot be transferred or modified. This is what he struggles to convey in his novels."

But it is Harris's own persistently questioning mode of discourse with which I would like to conclude, for it is perhaps in reminding us to keep on questioning the familiar 'truths' and taken-for-granted certainties of our twenty-first century world that his greatest challenge to us, as readers and as human subjects, lies:

"The voice of the Storm raised its unfamiliar yet strangely familiar message, pressing me deeper into the conviction that I was alive, I was free. It seemed a foolish question to ask, but how can one ever be sure one is free, one is alive, in a world where one has so many narrow escapes from fate and from the madness dictated by establishments one scarcely knows at all?"