In his first major work, Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss made the point that the anthropologist had become the ‘hero’, shaman and priest of the secular world, his expeditions into the savage hinterland a modern-day substitute for the primitive rite of passage into manhood, power and prestige within the tribe. The paradigm can be extended to the artist in the twentieth century who, embarking on his own journey into the interior, often becomes the protagonist of his own myth in which the public participates vicariously. The Guyanese novelist, Wilson Harris, in a sense combines both anthropological and artistic credentials. His early career as a land surveyor took him on long expeditions into the South American interior. But since abandoning the scientific vocation in mid-life and taking up exile in London, he has become an outstanding example of the artist who is both high-priest and victim, prophet and messianic presence within his own myth.
The myth that has built up around Harris is that of a writer who ventured into the South American heartland, experienced a special vision of some sort and returned to tell the world. An aura of the shaman has tended to cling to him, with the majority of critics seemingly inclined to regard him as a writer ‘sui generis’, visionary in his utterance and quite unlike anything that has hitherto appeared on the literary scene. After the publication of some sixteen works of fiction, one volume of early poetry (subsequently revised) footnote1 and two collections of essays his readers still approach his work with a measure of awe and trepidation, conscious that the conventional signposts of literary interpretation are quite inadequate as a means of guiding one through the complexities of his prose. In lectures and essays Harris himself has taken up the banner of aesthetic revolution and proclaimed that ‘a new tide of the imagination’ is beginning to sweep into the consciousness of the twentieth century.
What little biographical data we have tells us that Harris was born on 24 March 1921, in New Amsterdam, British Guiana. He grew up and trained for land-surveying in Guiana, eventually rising to the post of Senior Surveyor in the British Guianese colonial civil service. In 1959
Harris’s surveying expeditions into the interior, up the big Guyanese rivers like the Cuyuni, Essequibo and Potaro, supplied the setting, landscape and personae for his poems and early novels, in particular the justly acclaimed tetralogy now known as the Guyana Quartet. footnote2 However, a careful reading even of the Guyana Quartet reveals the more profound truth that the narratives tend to transcend the particularities of time and place; there is a drive towards abstraction—even more pronounced in his later novels—which in fact becomes a conscious design towards negation of the specific.
Since he published Palace of the Peacock in 1960—his first novel, still generally regarded as his masterpiece—Harris has been producing works of fiction at the phenomenal rate of almost one a year. They tend to be serial and repetitive, in the sense of returning to the same themes, images and characters, and it is useful to think of Harris’s oeuvre as an unfolding cycle, like some medieval narrative embodying what Eugene Vinaver termed ‘repetition with variation’ or what Harris himself, somewhat cryptically, has recently dubbed ‘rehearsal’. Yet it is crucial to note that the cycles of Harris’s novels are progressive or incremental, representing (again, in his own words) ‘a deepening cycle of exploration’. In dialectical terms, each succeeding stage may be said to cancel the revelations of its predecessors, but it also preserves them and raises them to a higher level.
Critical response to Harris has frequently alternated between puzzlement and mystification and generally assumes that the unique experience and vision are sufficient justification for a shockingly experimental style. Here, one would suggest, the myth of the writer as shaman connects with that by now hoary old myth of the writer as New World Adam, creating his world ‘ex nihilo’, or, like Pallas Athene, springing fully armed from the head of the God. More sober appreciations seek to place Harris within a tradition. Harris himself has written an essay entitled ‘Tradition and the West Indian Novel’ which, unfortunately, is singularly unhelpful in terms of locating its author within a recognizable tradition. It discusses other West Indian writers, notably Naipaul and Lamming, but, curiously, it deals with tradition in terms of negation: ‘The environment of the Caribbean is steeped . . . in such broken conceptions as well as misconceptions of the residue and meaning of conquest. No wonder in the jungles of Guiana and Brazil, for example, material structural witnesses may be obliterated or seem to exist in a terrible void of unreality.’ When Harris offers us something more positive, it again tends to slip away in a strange flux of language and categories: ‘The point I want to make in regard to the West Indies is that the pursuit of a strange and subtle goal, melting pot, call it what you like, is the mainstream (though unacknowledged) tradition in
Harris’s interest in the aboriginal presence is pervasive in his early fiction, but his extensive use of Amerindian myth develops fairly late and may have derived from later researches in the libraries of Europe and America as much as from any personal contact or experience in the early period in Guyana. (I believe it was Sylvia Wynter who remarked that it was quite obvious from Harris’s observations on Haitian vodun that he had never experienced the cult at first hand.) What is clear from even a superficial acquaintance with Harris’s work is that he is the most eclectic of writers, borrowing myths and allusions from a variety of sources. Indeed, Harris has suggested that this eclecticism is constitutive of the Caribbean experience and the Caribbean personality, which he describes as having emerged from a ‘complex womb’.