Wilson Harris: Experimental Vision

Part Two: Combination and Humanity

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

Wilson Harris does not leave the reader merely with this abstract notion of unearthing connections between seemingly opposing words or concepts. Rather, he seeks to demonstrate how vital this tactic is to human existence. For in Palace of the Peacock's tale of the men going down the river in search of the kin of the mysterious Mariella, a series of tragedies occur, ultimately bringing each member's death. Harris seems to point to their inability to reconcile binarisms in the world around them and between each other as the prime factor in their demise. Therefore daSilva kills Cameron in an argument over whether the ringed bird is a witch--a question of semantics. Though its members perhaps do not realize it, from the beginning Harris makes clear the unity of the crew:

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. (35)

But they struggle with each other, and with their own past, while illusory debates and dream visions isolate them from each other. In the end each seems to strive to reach realizations like that of Schomburgh in this passage:

It no longer mattered whether Carrol was his nephew or his son or both. He had heard clearer than ever before the distant music of the heart's wish and desire. (67)

Here Schomburgh sheds the illusory distinctions of "nephew" or "son" in favor of the deeper heart's connection, one more akin to the notion of the "spirtual family" above. But since the majority of the crew cannot reach these conclusions in life, since they allow illusions to fragment their unity, they "die". True to his technique of binary breakdowns, and echoing the African tradition of death not bringing the end to a soul -- dealt with extensively in Erna Brodber's Louisiana -- Harris demonstrates that only in physical death can they find reconciliation:

He saw Cameron in the stream and in the sky where their joint flesh had flown and darted above the fantasy of their carnal death. (91)

Though he hints at it all along, not until the end of the novel does Harris make clear the superficiality of the illusions (illusions like the structure of binary opposites) which divided and doomed the crew:

He had stopped a little to wonder whether he was wrong in his knowledge and belief and the force that had divided them from each other -- and mangled them beyond all earthly hope and recognition -- was the wind of rumour and superstition, and the truth was they had all come home at last to the compassion of the nameless unflinching folk. (110)

Harris therefore concludes that these illusions of "rumour and superstition", which may have provoked a crew member to pronounce two objects opposite or sparked enmity between two friends or relatives, must give way to the deeper roots of connectivity which they mask. The crew, "nameless" and thus undifferentiated in death, realizes the compassion which holds them together, which in essence ties every human being to every other. In sum, Harris has personified the concept of binary opposites in the characters of the crew, shown how they (like other binarisms) are divided by superficial distinctions, and then shattered these distinctions in favor of connecting, common roots of compassion.

Postcolonial Web [Postimperial] [Wilson Harris]