Wilson Harris: Experimental Vision

Part One: The Technique of Combination

David P. Lichtenstein '99, Brown University, Contributing Editor, Caribbean Web

The Caribbean obsession with history and the past has not prevented authors from experimenting with new writing techniques. Many Postcolonial writers have aligned their goals with those of the Deconstructionist movement, which seeks to identify and then dismantle binary opposites. Derek Walcott, for example, accomplishes this in "Pantomime", by creating a dramatic safe space that allows characters to work out deep-seeded feelings without worrying about the political and thus damaging baggage that might accompany such feelings. Wilson Harris takes on this practice also, in his novel Palace of the Peacock. But he approaches it via quite a different technique from Walcott's blurred lines of drama. Rather, Harris combines words and concepts in unexpected, jarring ways. Through this technique of combination, Harris makes clear that he seeks not only to erode specific binarisms in his text, but to display the underlying, linking root that prevents two categories from ever really existing in opposition. The ramifications of this tactic stretch well beyond the abstract, ranging from human psychology to political legacies. As the authors of The Empire Writes Back state,

The antagonistic energies of the past transform themselves, in the present, into a creative syncretism...it is...above all the works of Wilson Harris which underwrite this view (150).

To accomplish his goal, Harris utilizes the experimental technique of "intentional oxymorons." Throughout the novel, he draws connections between words that on the surface bear no similarity to each other, as in "They were plainly astonished at the immaculate bridal veil falling motionlessly from the river's tall brink" (100, my bold). As Harris himself explains in the movie 'The Landscape of Dreams" this quote demonstrates how on the surface the waterfall appears constant and thus motionless, but in actuality it comprises rushing water in steady motion.

Combinations like that fill Harris's writing. At times they reach even beyond this paradoxical confusion, and prove bewildering or frustrating to the reader. And when Harris makes the intuitively problematic claim that "Anything was everything in the whirling swift moment and in the fantasy of their shattered boat and life,'" (81), the door opens to a limitless wealth of possibility. But perhaps the frustration these possibilities produce is intentional -- or even necessary. For with the revelation of Harris's larger goals, one could no longer pronounce this technique gratuitous. The author begins to make clear these goals in such pointed examples as

He stood like a melodramatic rock in mother earth, born from a close fantasy and web of slave and concubine and free, out of one complex womb, from a phantom of voluptuousness whose memory was bitter and rebellious as death and sweet as life, every discipline and endurance and pain he felt he knew. But this boast sprang from a thriftless love of romance and a genuine optimism and self- advertisement and self-ignorance. (39)

This passage, rife with paradoxes such as "melodramatic rock", hints that all opposites, indeed all colors in the spectrum, will in the end be woven into one large web...signaling deeper, shared roots from which these superficial opposites spring. Thus Harris hopes to point out that only through ignorance of the roots will we pronounce two such things opposite. Harris calls to the reader to push beyond the first appearance that a word may present in order to see the conflicts and opportunities that it masks, as he explains (in "A Talk on the Subjective Imagination"):

Appearances are given, are apparently objective. The mystery of the subjective imagination lies, I believe, in an intuitive...grasp of a play of values as the flux of authentic change through and beyond what is given to us and what we accept, without further thought, as objective appearances. It is not a question of rootlessness but of the miracle of roots, the miracle of a dialogue with eclipsed selves which appearances mayu deny us or into which they may lead us (47).

And therein lies the possibility that the initial frustration the reader may experience becomes necessary -- as the mind of the reader must stretch and grow in order to accomodate this penetrating vision for which Harris strives.

The authors of The Empire Writes Back explain in part why Harris begins with language in this quest. They cite Harris's perception of language as both a crucial element in the subjugation of slaves and indentures, and as the means by which the destructive processes of history could be reversed:

Harris sees language as the key to these transformations. Language must be altered, it power to lock in fixed beliefs and attitudes must be exposed, and words and concepts "freed" to associate in new ways. There are, he points out, two kinds of relationship to the past -- one which derives from the past, and one which is a dialogue with the past (151).

Thus Harris attempts to take his readers on a journey to the past, in which his language and the readers' investigation of it establish new channels of interrogation with notions of the past that each once held as fixed.

Postcolonial Web [Postimperial] [Wilson Harris]