Wilson Harris "In the Forests of the Night."

By Melville, Pauline | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Wilson Harris "In the Forests of the Night."


Melville, Pauline, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


For those of us who are following Wilson Harris in the tradition of Guyanese literature, there is no doubt that he has transformed the literary landscape of the region, and we would be unwise (as would the rest of the world) to ignore his blazing signposts as we try to chart our way forward.

As a writer of fiction and as a fellow Guyanese, there are certain lessons that it has been my privilege to learn from this extraordinary writer. Like Wilson, I have spent many years out of Guyana. But from him I have learned that nationalism is not necessarily important for the creative artist. He gave me confidence in the idea that my imagination can be my homeland and that it can be fed from many sources.

Each of Wilson Harris's novels is a dense nexus of dream, myth, archetype, and prophecy that cuts clearly across the conventions of much Caribbean literature--a literature which mainly focuses on the purely historical features of slavery, colonialism, or indentured labor and which surrenders to an overwhelmingly materialist view of the post-Columbian period. I can think of no other English-speaking writer who deals with pre-Columbian myth and history reaching back through time to the Aztec and Mayan civilizations and who weaves threads from other civilizations as well, Greco-Roman for example, into a complex picture of the present. His work is courageous and visionary. It is revolutionary both in content and form, a melting-pot of the material and spiritual history, not just of the region but of the deepest levels of all humanity. He is not afraid to draw on whatever tradition--European, South American, Asian, or Judeo-Christian--that will give form to his ideas. In that sense his writing is a benison and a living example of redemption through integration.

There is no doubt that we experience, when reading his novels, the sense of a writer who is at some level possessed. This tradition, the tradition of Dante, Milton, and Blake, has mainly deserted modern European literature. The Amerindian shaman who was also in touch with spirits and was able to time travel, communicating his insights in the poetic, oral tradition is similarly an increasingly rare phenomenon on our continent. In modern times the sacred is dangerously under attack from the profane. Science and rationalism, for all their benefits, are hunting down and destroying other sorts of wisdom. Imagination is on the run. Much contemporary writing throughout the world has eagerly and exclusively embraced the profane surface of daily life and deals with the face of things. Wilson Harris deals with the archaeology of human experience and knowledge. The mysterious links and structures that so often remain hidden from us are revealed and shown to have a beautiful and cohesive pattern. The work is a rare repository of the sacred and the visionary. He is the man who can see the mask behind the face and write about it.

It seems to me that Wilson is the most Dionysian of writers. And in some ways this is terrifying to many people. We should not underestimate the terror that can be produced by his work. The books speak to us in tongues. Many people in this secular age do not have the framework in which to receive them. Dionysus is a god of rapture as well as a deliverer and a healer. …

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