Harris, Wilson

Biography

A Guyanese of Amerindian, African, European, and possibly Asian descent (Harris 1999: 237), Wilson Harris was born in New Amsterdam, Guyana (then and up until 1966 British Guiana) on March 24th, 1921. Having been educated at Queen’s College in the nation’s capital of Georgetown, he went on to become a government surveyor employed in mapping the country’s interior, specifically along their major rivers (see map below this text).

Harris emigrated to England in 1959. His academic career has since taken him to various corners of the globe. He has held positions teaching creative writing at the University of Texas in Austin, the University of California in Santa Cruz, as well as in Australia. He has been honored with numerous awards including the most recent 2010 knighting by Queen Elizabeth II.

Themes

The Guyana Quartet, 1985.

The Guyana Quartet, 1985

Harris started his writing career as a poet, publishing two volumes of verse before his departure to London, Fetish (1951) and Eternity to Season (1954), as well as numerous poems published separately in Guyana’s literary journal Kyk-over-al, among them “The Sun: Fourteen Poems in a Cycle” (1955). His novels, the genre in which Harris has been most prolific, can roughly be divided into five main phases (James 1999). His experience as a surveyor, although present in nearly all his writing, was to show most prominently in the first of these phases, which comprises his novels Palace of the Peacock (1960), The Far Journey of Oudin (1961), The Whole Armour (1962), and The Secret Ladder (1963) — collectively referred to as The Guyana Quartet. Using the landscape of Guyana as a backdrop (which is nevertheless intricately interwoven with the narrative), these works draw on the country’s multiethnic heritage as a reservoir for reconciliation and achieving an awareness of the interconnected fates of everyone affected by colonialism. Often introducing characters symbolic of a particular segment of society, the novels thrust these characters into situations of heightened physical and spiritual danger, during which they are made to realize their common plight. Working metaphorically by juxtaposing the country’s exterior (the coast) to its interior (the hinterland, the rainforest), Harris stages a “voyage in” which emphasizes the role of the unconscious in overcoming the legacies of colonialism.

Following Heartland (1964), which reevaluates some of the themes and characters of the Quartet, Harris published a number of novels which take his use of imagination as a tool for liberation one step further. Beginning with The Eye of the Scarecrow (1965), Harris started to depict psychological impairments, such as the loss of memory or nervous breakdowns, induced by accidents symbolically linked to colonialism, as creating a void which can (and must) be filled by the imagination (The Waiting Room (1967), Tumatumari (1968), and Ascent to Omai (1970), all fall into this loose category). This step places a visionary view of the world on an equal level with a “factual” appraisal of “reality,” thus questioning the ordering principles imposed by that reality. In a place as severely affected by colonialism as the Caribbean, such a stance is of particular importance, as it stresses the role of the writer in healing the impacts of colonialism.

Black Marsden (1972) initiates a set of novels that shift the setting to places outside of Guyana and adopt a comparative perspective which helps Harris to generalize some of his observations about the conflicts he had explored in his earlier fiction. Set in Scotland, Black Marsden (which is subtitled A Tabula Rasa Comedy, hinting at the author’s more playful way of addressing some of his issues) integrates the arts of theater (in the plot) and painting (in the theme ? there are bleak physical as well as psychological landscapes through which the characters are made to wander) into the novel form. Companions of the Day and Night (1975) continues Marsden, concentrating on a different main character. Another two-volume set of novels in this phase is DaSilva daSilva’s Cultivated Wilderness (1977) and The Tree of the Sun (1978), in which the character DaSilva makes a return as a painter from Harris’s first novel, Palace of the Peacock.

The last of the somewhat unified cycles of fiction by Wilson Harris is represented by his Carnival Trilogy, comprised of the novels Carnival (1985), The Infinite Rehearsal (1987), and The Four Banks of the River of Space (1990). Playing on carnival’s subversive potential in reenacting received traditions, these novels are rewritings, respectively,of Dante’s Paradiso, Goethe’s Faust, and Homer’s Odyssey. Apart from alluding to these three representative pieces of the Western literary canon, the trilogy also addresses the role of science. In passages reminiscent (in effect, if not in style) of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Harris shows how in an age of rapidly shifting analytical paradigms in the realm of science, this realm has moved ever closer qualitatively to the realm of traditional storytelling and one of its major protagonists, the Anancy trickster figure.

Harris’s most recent works, Resurrection at Sorrow Hill (1993) and Jonestown (1996) are again invoking the Guyanese landscape as a metaphor of the seemingly impenetrable psyche of its protagonists. As in the Guyana Quartet, however, there is a “voyage in” which does engage with the overwhelming sense of alienation created by the jungle (and, implicitly,by colonial rule) in a very creative manner. These two works are more global in outlook than the Quartet, however, in that they address manifestations of hierarchical systems which are epitomized by, but not endemic to, colonialism. Resurrection at Sorrow Hill counters the structuring mechanisms of surveillance instituted by the prison system (as described by Foucault 1979) as well as by the mental asylum (see Foucault 1973) by ascribing a regenerative quality to the “madness” of its main protagonist (adequately named “Hope”) which in turn is needed to overcome the madness of the “real world.” Another form of “madness,” namely religious fanaticism, is addressed in Jonestown.

The Cross-Cultural Imagination

Wilson Harris’s work stands out among Caribbean writers as arguably the most radically inclusive body of writing produced in the region. As any writer from a colonized country writing in the postcolonial era, Wilson Harris has had to address the effects of colonization on the society which provided the source for his creative project. Harris has been interested in showing that the process of colonization affects both sides of the colonial divide,a point made very clearly by his Barbadian colleague Edward Brathwaite with regard to the working of language (Brathwaite 1971). It is important to note, however, that Brathwaite, in analyzing Creole Society in Jamaica, erected a division of Afro – vs. Euro-Creole, thus disavowing the influence of other ethnic groups on the development of the culture; Harris’s efforts at integrating all groups which make up Caribbean, and Guyanese society in particular, into his writings stand out among Caribbean writers, especially in so far as he explicitly makes reference to the Amerindian heritage of the region.

Harris uses the coincidence of mythical figures of both the African and the Amerindian oral traditions, such as Anancy the spider, to propose his concept of a “cross-cultural imagination.” The link between African and Amerindian myth is seen by Harris as a consequence of the Middle Passage, creating a “limbo gateway” (“History, Fable, and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas,” 152-166 in Harris 1999) through which a new imagination can emerge. By invoking the limbo dance as a metaphor, Harris insists that this new imagination only comes about as the result of a painful, yet fruitful, interaction between not only the African and Amerindian, but also the European cultures. The imagination, in the Caribbean setting, is seen to progress in a singular fashion, from cramp to growth.

Harris also relies on Amerindian mythical representations of nature as carriers of his central messages. This reliance is grounded in a belief that “one cannot […] colonize the unconscious” (Rowell 1995: 192) – Frantz Fanon would of course vehemently disagree).

A professed devotee of Carl Gustav Jung, Wilson Harris has expressed his admiration for the philosopher’s concept of a collective unconscious. However, it has been his aim to expand this idea so that it may include the forces of nature as well as the inanimate world. Harris’s alternative term for this phenomenon is the “universal unconscious” (Kutzinski 1995:20). This has been a central ingredient in his challenging of colonial rule by way of enabling the imagination to effect liberation from confining epistemological boundaries which neatly separate human consciousness from its surroundings.

In keeping with this approach, Harris has also repeatedly rejected realism as a mode of artistic expression. Asserting that “[t]here’s a sense in which realism weds us to Death,” (Rowell 1995: 194) Harris valorizes the unconscious as providing of a gateway that enables a reinsciption of reality as preconceived by colonial discourse.

Aesthetic Concerns

One of the most prolific writers of our time, Wilson Harris has not only consistently worked in different genres, but has likewise brought them into conversation with one another and thus blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction. Hence, many of his essays display an uncompromisingly poetic style, while his novels are interspersed with passages which could easily pass for pieces of literary and cultural criticism. This convergence is so complete that, in fact, Harris explicitly quotes himself in his writings in key passages.

The rejection of dichotomies in the aesthetic realm is symbolic of his rejection of the same dichotomies in the political sphere, pertaining to colonialism. While indicting the colonial project and its repercussions (on the psyche in particular), Harris nevertheless takes great care in emphasizing the effects of this process on both colonizer and colonized,which makes it possible for him to gesture towards an inclusive vision of reconciliation that transcends “the cult of revenge” (Resurrection at Sorrow Hill, 107).

Works by Wilson Harris

This bibliography is restricted to Harris’s major works of fiction and criticism. An extensive listing of primary and secondary sources (including all of Harris’s early writing) is available at http://www.l3.ulg.ac.be/harris/

  • Harris, Wilson. The Age of the Rainmakers. London: Faber and Faber, 1971.
  • —. The Angel at the Gate. London: Faber and Faber, 1982.
  • —. Ascent to Omai. London: Faber and Faber, 1970.
  • —. Black Marsden. London: Faber and Faber, 1972.
  • —. Carnival. London: Faber and Faber, 1985.
  • —. The Carnival Trilogy. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.
  • —. Companions of the Day and Night. London: Faber and Faber, 1975.
  • —. DaSilva daSilva’s Cultivated Wilderness and Genesis of the Clowns. London: Faber and Faber, 1977.
  • —. The Eye of the Scarecrow. London: Faber and Faber, 1965.
  • —. The Far Journey of Oudin. London: Faber and Faber, 1961.
  • —. The Four Banks of the River of Space. London: Faber and Faber,1990.
  • —. The Guyana Quartet. London: Faber and Faber, 1985.
  • —. Heartland. London: Faber and Faber, 1964.
  • —. The Infinite Rehearsal. London: Faber and Faber, 1987.
  • —. Jonestown. London: Faber and Faber, 1996.
  • —. Palace of the Peacock. London: Faber and Faber, 1960.
  • —. Resurrection at Sorrow Hill. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.
  • —. The Secret Ladder. London: Faber and Faber, 1963.
  • —. The Sleepers of Roraima: A Carib Trilogy. London: Faber andFaber, 1970.
  • —. The Tree of the Sun. London: Faber and Faber, 1978.
  • —. Tumatumari. London: Faber and Faber, 1968.
  • —. The Waiting Room. London: Faber and Faber, 1967.
  • —. The Whole Armour. London: Faber and Faber, 1962.

Critical Writings

  • Harris, Wilson. Explorations: A Selection of Talks and Articles, 1966-1981.ed. by Hena Maes-Jelinek. Mundelstrup: Dangaroo Press, 1981.
  • —. Fossil and Psyche. Austin: African and Afro-American Studies and Research Center, University of Texas, 1974.
  • —. Tradition, the Writer, and Society: Critical Essays. London and Port of Spain: New Beacon Books, 1967.
  • —. History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and the Guianas (Edgar Mittelholzer Memorial Lectures). Georgetown: National —. History and Arts Council,  1970; rev. and updated ed. Wellesley: Calaloux, 1995.
  • —. Selected Essays of Wilson Harris: The Unfinished Genesis of the Imagination. Ed. by A.J.M. Bundy. New York: Routledge,1999.
  • —. The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination. London:  Greenwood Press, 1983.

Poetry

  • Harris, Wilson. Eternity to Season. Georgetown: published privately, 1954; rpt. London: New Beacon  Books, 1978.
  • —. Fetish. Guyana: Miniature Poets Series, 1951.
  • —. “The Muse on the Trail,” New World (Guyana Independence Issue, 1966),45.
  • —. “The Winter Christ,” Three Poems, Temenos Academy Review, 2 (Spring 1999), 46-49.

Selected Bibliography

  • Drake, Sandra F. (1986). Wilson Harris and the Modern Tradition: A New Architecture  of the World. New York: Greenwood Press.
  • Durrant, Sam. Postcolonial Narrative and the Work of Mourning: J. M. Coetzee, Wilson Harris, and Toni Morrison.  Albany, NY: State U of New York P; 2003.
  • Maes-Jelinek, Hena (1991). “’Numinous Proportions’: Wilson Harris’s Alternative to All  Posts’.” Adam, Ian and Tiffin, Heken (eds.). Past the Last Post: Theorizing Post- Colonialism and Post-Modernism. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf. 47-64.
  • McDougall, Russell (1998). “Walter Roth, Wilson Harris, and a Caribbean/Postcolonial Theory of Modernism.” University of Toronto Quarterly 67(2): 567-591.
  • Gilkes, Michael (ed.) (1989). The Literate Imagination: Essays on the Novels of Wilson  Harris. London: Macmillan.
  • Webb, Barbara J. (1992). Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction: Alejo Carpentier,  Wilson Harris, and Edouard Glissant. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Special Issues

  • Callaloo 18:1 (1995)
  • The Review of Contemporary Fiction 17:2 (1997).

Author: Christian Wolff, Spring 2000
Last edited: June 2012

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