The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Wilson Harris

Posted on: April 4, 2007

Considering my interest in mytho-spiritual writers with deeply felt philosophies it is no surprise that I’ve been intrigued by the Guyanese writer Wilson Harris ever since I read his Guardian profile. Descriptions such as ‘He was haunted both by a landscape that “seemed alive” and by mysterious signs of pre-Columbian civilisations that had imploded even before the Spanish conquest’ and ‘The Guyanese-born novelist and poet David Dabydeen sees him as heir to a “tradition of mystical and visionary writing, from the Gnostics to William Blake”…Harris is trying to explore the language of the unconscious – dream states and parallel universes that are only partially glimpsed”‘ are more than enough to whet the appetite of someone who loves Blake and Borges. That he is Caribbean adds another attraction: realism tends to be the order of the day, it seems, at least from what I’ve been exposed to in the English-speaking Caribbean.

Whenever I plug a Caribbean author’s name into JSTOR I notice that the *journal Callaloo (yum) tends to make up the majority of search results. This proved true with Harris as well: they had a whole issue from 1995 dedicated to him, including excerpts from as yet unpublished work and an interview at the end.

That one was a head scratcher. It’s hard to believe that people actually speak like this, but apparently they do; the complexity of Harris’ ideas were both perplexing and alluring. And when I think about it, it wasn’t the complexity so much as the strangeness of what he said. I had never read about post-colonial history or fictional narrative couched in the language he used. It’s not that he said anything original either: the idea that we operate today and interpret our history and myth in a framework of conquest and surrender, of domination, of plunder–especially resonant for the African diaspora as you can imagine. But the way he discussed it then tied it into his fiction was really something. I was so impressed, or at least intrigued, even if I had to back track and read some sentences twice.

I’d like to excerpt parts of the interview here; a difficult thing to do since Harris gives very long answers to short questions and each new answer is built on the last, risking a significant loss of meaning or sense. But I’m going to do it anyway because I think I’m falling in love.

HARRIS: Conquistadorial habit dies hard. Polluted environments, as everyone knows, are a sign of the age in which we live. Human discourse tends to frame itself into an absolute tool of communication. There is a reliance on visual materials to augment an appeal to human greed, human lust, and a command of the resources of nature.

Yet we are aware, I think, of how tragically impoverished society would be if it lost an ear for other voices, other rhythms, in the fabric of reality…

A slight creature like a bird–that we may hold in the palm of our hand–is a living, fossil instrument or organ. Across aeons it has been shaped to breathe the utterance of music.

How indebted are composers of music to an overview of–and an immersion in–layers of the live, fossil unconscious? Patterns of bird-song are now being scanned in the humanities to assess peculiar strategies of composition by composers of genius. It is well-known that the music of the Black American South–which affected the prose of Jean Toomer, William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston–possesses rhythms astonishingly close to the marvelous vocabulary of bird-song…

I spoke a moment ago of the live, fossil instrumentality that shapes the throat and the frame and the anatomy of a bird and how this articulates the utterance of music. The bird is not aware of what is happening. The role of genius then would appear to lie in a continuous wrestling with the impulses, the strange, sometimes alien voices, of the eruptive unconscious that create a re-visionary medium within the conscious.

[…]

ROWELL: Earlier, you used the term “universal unconscious.” Will you say more about the “universal unconscious”?

HARRIS: I prefer the term “universal unconscious” to “collective unconscious” because “collective unconscious” is primarily concerned with the human psyche. Whereas “universal unconscious” encompasses living landscapes as well as the human psyche, the implicit eloquence in the shape of rocks, the markings on rocks made by fire and water, messages or hieroglyphs left by ancient cultures. Some of these hieroglyphs are untranslatable but they are a ceaseless spur to the human imagination to discern priorities to human discourse. The tree that seems voiceless whispers not only in its leaves but within an invisible orchestra or carbon attunement between wood and element. Not to speak of the inner horizons in which a kind of book in parallel with the growth and decline of civilization.

The destruction of the rainforests of the globe may seem remote to dwellers in cities. But we need imaginations that are sensitive to inner-city decay and the lungs of the globe orchestrated into forests and rivers and skies. We need to build afresh through the brokenness of our world. Such brokenness is an enormous paradox. Within man-made institutions lie the roots of misconceptions of the nature of the arts, of the nature of the sciences, of the nature of nature itself, which we have long fostered in ignorance, or in bias, or in regimes of slaughter and prejudice. Thus the brokenness of human communities is an invitation arising within the universal unconscious to begin to diverge from false clarities, false unities, that have reinforced complacency and conflict.

[…]

There’s a sense in which realism weds us to Death. Death-dealing regimes and technologies appear to prosper everywhere. When I speak of a different conceptual language of the Imagination, I am thinking, for instance, of the charisma of conquest to which individuals and societies are addicted. The language of conquest would seem to me quintessential to the vocabulary of Death.

Christian idealogy invests, as you know, in the resurrection as the conquest of Death. And I would suggest that to do so is to forfeit a re-visionary momentum within resources of language. The resurrection may imply not conquest at all but a transition from one dimension or universe of sensibility to another. This release a capacity in which conventional “plot,” conventional “structure,” conventional “character,” changes. A divergence from the inevitability of cherished notions of conquest occurs, a divergence as well from the inevitable catastrophe. It would take us too far afield to pursue these matters in detail. What I would say however is that a divergence from realistic “plot” may imply an accumulation of archetypal motifs that link live, fossil resources, of which I have spoken before, to a transition from one dimension of being to another.

From “An interview with Wilson Harris” by Charles H. Rowell in “Callaloo” Vol. 18, No. 1

*I lied it’s still going for some reason my school cancelled its subscription and the reasoning was ambiguous enough for me to make a wrong conclusion

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9 Responses to "Wilson Harris"

Callaloo is now defunct?? Crap! I had a submission I was going to send them. Ugg. Oh well, I have another journal in mind.

It’s actually not and I’ve made another blunder today (it’s that kind of day). Edited to show change.

i am SO JEALOUS that you have jstor!!

have you read maryse conde?

I am pretty lucky. 😀 And one of my roommates is on the direct path to becoming a professor so I intend to be set up for life. (That or live relatively near a university.)

I haven’t but her I, Tituba sounds really good. Thanks a lot for mentioning her, I’m always on the look out for more Caribbean authors I could go for.

Whew! Thanks! I was getting a little freaked trying to decide where to send this essay. lol

Have you ever read Pankaj Mishra?

Andi a thousand apologies. I’m pretty happy about my mistake because I couldn’t think of another journal where I’d be able to find academic criticism on Caribbean authors.

JCR I have not although the name sounds vaguely familiar. Does he/she have a similar world view?

Loved the pieces of the interview that you selected. My graduation work was based on Wilson Harris’s The far journey of Oudin, and I keep studying his works for my MA. I live in São Paulo, Brazil, and would be happy to keep contact. I have plenty of material by Harris and on Harris.
jamillepinheiro@gmail.com
Cheers
Jamille

Thanks for the compliments and the offer Jamille! I would love to have someone with whom I could discuss Harris’ novels.

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