Academic journal article ARIEL

Strange Correspondences: Late Capitalism and Late Style in the Work of Wilson Harris and John Berger

Academic journal article ARIEL

Strange Correspondences: Late Capitalism and Late Style in the Work of Wilson Harris and John Berger

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article compares the late work of Guyanese author Wilson Harris with that of English writer and critic John Berger. Taking Theodor Adorno's reflections on late style as its point of departure, it situates the unconventional aesthetics of both writers in relation to the changes in society and experience unleashed by late capitalism. The essay focuses on Harris' The Ghost of Memory (2006) and Berger's From A to X (2008) to argue that the novels' formal logic registers the pressures generated in the era of late capitalism by the unfolding dynamics of the neoliberal regime of accumulation and the fallout from the increasing financialization of the world-economy since the 1970s. Both texts protest the radical simplification of human and extra-human nature central to finance capital's drive to transform all of reality into generic income streams. Harris and Berger both emphasize the need to revitalize the sensorium; overcome the Cartesian separation of mind and body and society and nature; and maintain the possibility of an alternative mapping of global community.

Keywords: Wilson Harris, John Berger, late style, late capitalism, neoliberalism, temporality

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"Reading Harris was always a bit like being buttonholed by the Ancient Mariner," writes Mike Phillips in a review of Guyanese author Wilson Harris' novel The Ghost of Memory (2006). "But now the voice, insistent as ever, has a touch of querulousness, and while his imagination may be as demanding and as innovative as ever, it's beginning to look as if the great original is in imminent danger of plagiarising himself." Certainly Harris' twenty-third and self-proclaimed final novel is as elliptical and challenging as his previous works, if not more so. Serving as "a philosophical synthesis of his considerable fictional output," The Ghost of Memory unfolds through a series of meditations by the narrator on "the origins of creation and on the nature of art" (Maes-Jelinek 469). The querulousness that Phillips detects in the novel may well be due, as he implies, to Harris' frustration at the lack of widespread recognition accorded his work, despite the critical plaudits he has received. Indeed, Phillips suggests that the text provokes the "slightly uncomfortable sense that the author is trying to justify or explain his thoughts and work to a wider audience." Rather than consider the querulousness of The Ghost of Memory in these terms, however, I want instead to heed Theodor Adorno's admonition that in examining the late works of significant artists we must anchor our analysis not in biography or psychology but in the "formal law" of the work itself (564).

The maturity of late works, Adorno writes, "does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are, for the most part, not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation. They lack all the harmony that the classicist aesthetic is in the habit of demanding from works of art, and they show more traces of history than of growth" (564). Adorno was writing with specific reference to Beethoven, but as Edward Said demonstrates in his own reflections on late style, this analysis can be extended to many other artists whose late works embody dissonance, difficulty, and intransigence rather than harmony and resolution (Said 7). For Adorno, Said argues, "lateness is the idea of surviving beyond what is acceptable and normal" (13). Harris' longstanding commitment to a visionary art of fiction--an experimental poetics that reaches something of a self-reflexive apotheosis in The Ghost of Memory--might be viewed as indicative of his refusal to bow to accepted literary formulas. He has never sought "the easy success which his extraordinary, exceptional command and creative use of the English language might have brought him" (Maes-Jelinek 549). It is also a testament to the way his writing has long nurtured a utopian vision in which the revelation of what he calls cross-culturality is heralded as a means to disrupt the normalized structures of violence and oppression characteristic of modern (capitalist) civilization. …

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