Wilson Harris: An Introduction

By Adler, Joyce Sparer | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Wilson Harris: An Introduction


Adler, Joyce Sparer, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


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. …

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