March 24, 1921
The first recipient of the Guyana Prize for Fiction (1985–1987), Wilson Harris was born in New Amsterdam, a coastal city in the Berbice region of British Guiana (Guyana after 1966). Since 1945 he has published twenty-three novels, two collections of novellas, two volumes of poetry, and several books of essays and interviews.
Harris's writings engage the intellectual and spiritual resources that reside in the depths of what he calls, in his novel Carnival, the "universal plague of violence" that exists in the twentieth century (p. 14). His novels dramatize how this legacy of violence can be transformed into powerfully creative energy. For instance, death is not an end for Harris's characters but a necessary "cancellation" of one's "fear of strangeness and catastrophe in a destitute world" (p. 116). Instead of Conradian "horror," Harris's protagonists typically experience spiritual fulfillment and self-knowledge only when they embrace otherness.
Unlike V. S. Naipaul and other Caribbean writers, Harris does not believe in "historylessness" and irreversible cultural destitution. For him the Caribbean's landscape itself is history. Harris's fictional landscapes abound with traces and echoes of eclipsed histories—of African slaves, East Indian indentured laborers, and Amerindians—sometimes to the point of sensory overload for some readers. Harris's early career as a surveyor familiarized him with his native South American landscape. After graduating from Queen's College of the University of Guyana in 1939, he led countless survey expeditions along Guyana's coast and into its interior. These experiences resonate in most of his novels, even in those not specifically set in Guyana. The first and most acclaimed of these novels is Palace of the Peacock (1960). Harris wrote Palace in 1959, the year he emigrated to the United Kingdom, where he still resides.
Harris's characters, many of whom are fictional personae, are best described as activated archetypes, or "character-masks," as he prefers. Their sense of selfhood is complicated by the fact that, according to Harris, memory is never just individual recollection. Rather, it always includes traces of other, "strange" presences, both dead and alive. When characters embark on their "voyage[s] in the straits of memory" (Palace, p. 62), they come to acknowledge their "inner problematic ties" to the rest of the world. Although they inhabit different times and universes, they can encounter each other intuitively and imaginatively through the "world's unconscious," something of a Jungian network. In his Carnival Trilogy, for example, Harris's Dantesque characters, led by Virgilian guides from the realm of the dead, move in and out of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, all three of which he conceives as overlapping modes of existence that represent relative states of consciousness and unconsciousness. As their inner spaces of consciousness overlap more and more with the outer realms of the phenomenal world, characters are freed from ingrained patterns of thought and behavior. A character's individual identity eventually gives way to a state of spiritual freedom, or true personhood, through an awareness of "parallel" universes. The joint, multiple conception of authorship that follows from such an awareness is at the heart of Harris's re-visionary strategies.
Harris believes that writers of literature have the moral responsibility to interrogate areas of intellectual and emotional self-deception without resorting to political dogma. Applying this premise has led him to imagine and experiment with alternatives to traditional narrative. His "new density" of language eschews clear political messages and easy access to categories such as otherness and cultural authenticity. Harris's work is a poetics of imaginative cross-cultural reassembly that is also a sustained critique of realist modes of representation, in literature and elsewhere. As early as 1952, in "Form and Realism in the West Indian Artist," Harris insists that realism is central to imperial ideologies and that its literary manifestations constitute a troubling residue of imperialism's cultural politics. This residue significantly includes "protest realism," which Harris deems an ineffective form of intellectual resistance to conceptual and physical violence. Harris's writings on realism and imperialism anticipate major arguments in the work of postcolonial theorists such as of Edward Said and Homi Bhabha.
Maes-Jelinek, Hena. "The Wilson Harris Bibliography." Available online at <www.ulg.ac.be/facphl/uer/d-german/L3/whone.html> (March 2005).
Webb, Barbara J. Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction: Alejo Carpentier, Wilson Harris, and Edouard Glissant. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
Fiction and Poetry by Harris
Fetish (1951); Eternity to Season (1954, rev. 1978); Palace of the Peacock (1960); 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 (1967); Ascent ot Omai (1970); The Sleepers of Roraima: A Carib Trilogy (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); Carnival (1985); The Guyana Quartet (1985); The Infinite Rehearsal (1987); The Four Banks of the River of Space (1990); Resurrection at Sorrow Hill (1993); The Carnival Trilogy (1993); Jonestown (1996); The Dark Jester (2001); The Mask of the Beggar (2003).
Essays by Harris
Tradition, the Writer and Society (1967); Explorations: A Selection of Talks and Articles, 1966–1981, edited by Hena Maes-Jelinek (1981); The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination (1984); The Radical Imagination: Lectures and Talks, edited by Alan Riach and Mark Williams (1992); Selected Essays of Wilson Harris, edited by Andrew Bundy (1999).
vera m. kutzinski (2005)