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(Theodore) Wilson Harris Biography

Wilson Harris comments:

Nationality: British. Born: New Amsterdam, British Guiana, now Guyana, 1921. Education: Queen's College, Georgetown. Career: Government surveyor in the 1940s, and senior surveyor, 1955-58, Government of British Guiana; moved to London in 1959. Visiting lecturer, State University of New York, Buffalo, 1970; writer-in-residence, University of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica, and Scarborough College, University of Toronto, 1970; Commonwealth Fellow in Caribbean Literature, Leeds University, Yorkshire, 1971; visiting professor, University of Texas, Austin, 1972, and 1981-82, University of Mysore, 1978, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1979, University of Newcastle, New South Wales, 1979, and University of Queensland, St. Lucia, 1986; Regents' Lecturer, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1983. Delegate, National Identity Conference, Brisbane, and Unesco Symposium on Caribbean Literature, Cuba, both 1968. Awards: Arts Council grant, 1968, 1970; Guggenheim fellowship, 1973; Henfield fellowship, 1974; Southern Arts fellowship, 1976; Guyana fiction prize, 1987; Premio Mondello International award, 1992. D. Litt.: University of the West Indies, 1984; University of Kent, Canterbury, 1988.



Palace of the Peacock. London, Faber, 1960.

The Far Journey of Oudin. London, Faber, 1961.

The Whole Armour. London, Faber, 1962.

The Secret Ladder. London, Faber, 1963.

Heartland. London, Faber, 1964.

The Eye of the Scarecrow. London, Faber, 1965.

The Waiting Room. London, Faber, 1967.

Tumatumari. London, Faber, 1968.

Ascent to Omai. London, Faber, 1970.

Black Marsden: A Tabula Rasa Comedy. London, Faber, 1972.

Companions of the Day and Night. London, Faber, 1975.

Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness, and Genesis of the Clowns. London, Faber, 1977.

The Tree of the Sun. London, Faber, 1978.

The Angel at the Gate. London, Faber, 1982.

Carnival. London, Faber, 1985.

The Guyana Quartet. London, Faber, 1985.

The Infinite Rehearsal. London, Faber, 1987.

The Four Banks of the River of Space. London, Faber, 1990.

Resurrection at Sorrow Hill. London and Boston, Faber, 1993.

The Carnival Trilogy. London, Faber, 1993.

Short Stories

The Sleepers of Roraima. London, Faber, 1970.

The Age of the Rainmakers. London, Faber, 1971.


Fetish. Privately printed, 1951.

The Well and the Land. Georgetown, Magnet, 1952.

Eternity to Season. Privately printed, 1954; revised edition, London, New Beacon, 1979.


Tradition, The Writer, and Society: Critical Essays. London, NewBeacon, 1967.

History, Fable, and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas. Georgetown, National History and Arts Council, 1970; Wellesley, Massachusetts, Calaloux Publications, 1995.

Fossil and Psyche (lecture on Patrick White). Austin, University ofTexas, 1974.

Explorations: A Selection of Talks and Articles, edited by Hena Maes-Jelinek. Aarhus, Denmark, Dangaroo Press, 1981.

The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1983.

The Radical Imagination: Lectures and Talks, edited by A. Riach andM. Williams. Liège, Belgium, Université de Liège, 1992.

Selected Essays of Wilson Harris, the Unfinished Genesis of the Imagination, introduced and edited by A.J.M. Bundy. New York, Routledge, 1999.


Manuscript Collections:

University of the West Indies, Mona, Kingston, Jamaica; University of Texas, Austin; University of Indiana, Bloomington; University of Guyana, Georgetown.

Critical Studies:

Wilson Harris: A Philosophical Approach by C.L.R. James, Port of Spain, University of the West Indies, 1965; The Novel Now by Anthony Burgess, London, Faber, and New York, Norton, 1967, revised edition, Faber, 1971; essay by John Hearne, in The Islands in Between edited by Louis James, London, Oxford University Press, 1968; Wilson Harris and the Caribbean Novel by Michael Gilkes, Trinidad and London, Longman, 1975; Enigma of Values edited by Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford, Aarhus, Denmark, Dangaroo Press, 1975; The Naked Design: A Reading of Palace of the Peacock, Aarhus, Denmark, Dangaroo Press, 1976, and Wilson Harris, Boston, Twayne, 1982, both by Hena Maes-Jelinek; West Indian Literature edited by Bruce King, London, Macmillan, 1979; "The Eternal Present in Wilson Harris's The Sleepers of Roraima and The Age of the Rainmakers " by Gary Crew, in World Literature Written in English (Arlington, Texas), Autumn 1980; "Limbo, Dislocation, Phantom Limb" by Nathaniel Mackey, in Criticism (Detroit), Winter 1980; Wilson Harris and the Modern Imagination: A New Architecture of the World by Sandra E. Drake, Westport, Connecticut, and London, Greenwood Press, 1986; The Literate Imagination: Essays on the Novels of Wilson Harris edited by Michael Gilkes, London, Macmillan, 1989; Wilson Harris: The Uncompromising Imagination edited by Hena Maes-Jelinek, Aarhus, Kangaroo Press, 1991.

Theatrical Activities:

Actor: TelevisionDa Silva da Silva, 1987.

(1972) Palace of the Peacock through The Guyana Quartet and successive novels up to The Sleepers of Roraima and The Age of the Rainmakers are related to a symbolic landscape-in-depth—the shock of great rapids, vast forests and savannahs—playing through memory to involve perspectives of imperiled community and creativity reaching back into the Pre-Columbian mists of time.

I believe that the revolution of sensibility of defining community towards which we may now be moving is an extension of the frontiers of the alchemical imagination beyond an opus contra naturam into an opus contra ritual. This does not mean the jettisoning of ritual (since ritual belongs in the great ambivalent chain of memory; and the past, in a peculiar sense, as an omen of proportions, shrinking or expanding, never dies); but it means the utilization of ritual as an ironic bias—the utilization of ritual, not as something in which we situate ourselves absolutely, but as an unraveling of self-deception with self-revelation as we see through the various dogmatic proprietors of the globe within a play of contrasting structures and anti-structures: a profound drama of consciousness invoking contrasting tones is the variable phenomenon of creativity within which we are prone, nevertheless, to idolize logical continuity or structure and commit ourselves to a conservative bias, or to idolize logical continuity or anti-structure and commit ourselves to a revolutionary bias. Thus we are prone to monumentalize our own biases and to indict as well as misconceive creativity. A capacity to digest as well as liberate contrasting figures is essential to the paradox of community and to the life of the imagination.

* * *

With the publication in 1990 of The Four Banks of the River of Space, Wilson Harris completed a trilogy of novels which began with Carnival and continued through The Infinite Rehearsal. Although each book involves different characters and locations, when taken together, they form a complex revision of three crucial texts of Western Culture: The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, and Faust. This is the culmination of a process which began with Harris's first novel, Palace of the Peacock, published thirty years earlier, and has continued through twenty-six volumes of fictional prose, criticism and verse.

Like Blake, Harris is a visionary, and his work is the complex literary expression of a vision which offers redemptive hope. For Harris, creativity is an intrinsic value in all the forms taken by the expressions of the intuitive imagination. Harris's prose is not seductively mimetic, like that of a realist novel. Rather, it demands concentrated attention as it works through continual disclosures of its own ambivalence. For example, the opening of Palace of the Peacock seems to describe a character on horseback "approaching at break-neck speed." A shot rings out, the man falls dead and a second man approaches (an unnamed "I"). The narrative seems straightforward, but close scrutiny of Harris's language reveals ambivalent meanings. The word "breakneck" suddenly suggests that the man has been hanged, not shot, and the noise of the gunshot may be the sound of the trapdoor dropping. Harris puns repeatedly on "I"/"eye" and brings together "one dead seeing eye" and "one living closed eye" to suggest that the contemplative man of vision and the unimaginative man of action are not absolute types but only aspects of a complex wholeness, wherein no individual has absolute authority. Harris extends this notion radically in the Carnival trilogy, where cultural archetypes like Ulysses are seen to be no longer viable as the property of any single culture, but demand to be shared among cultures globally.

Thus the journey upriver into the rainforests of Guyana which forms the narrative "line" of Palace is better understood as a prismatic perspective which reveals the "characters" as parts of a vast, interrelated family. They are the representatives of numerous cultures, scattered from pole to pole by the processes of imperialism and colonialism. Though they are symbolic, the symbolism is unreliable and inconstant.

The strategy of Harris's novels is therefore to draw hope from a narrative which would seem to be linear and closed by opening it up to historical and geographical dimensional senses and formal experimentation. Although ostensibly "set" in South America, Palace is as much an inquiry into the nature of language and literary form as it is a story of conquistadors striking out for El Dorado. Indeed, the forbidding opacities and dazzling visions of the Guyanese rainforests seem sometimes to act metaphorically for Harris's written English, its adamantine immediacy and allusive depths. The name of the principal character, Donne, echoes that of the late Renaissance poet who stands at the end of the medieval world and at the beginning of the modern, at the point where colonial expansion began. Harris is hopefully signaling an equally transitional period. He addresses the questions of the dissolution of personal identity and "the open wound of human history" in ways which are significant not only in terms of "Caribbean literature" or "post-colonial literature," but rather in terms of modern literature in English.

The three novels which follow Palace are thematically distinct as they deal with slavery and indenture on the rice plantations, the imposition of law on frontier society and finally the rise of the modern state. But throughout The Guyana Quartet, themes and characters from past and present meet and mingle with each other. The space between the hinterland of forest and the cultivated coastal areas is shifting, just as language is a vast repository of unarticulated expression, an "enabling" or "womb-like space." As Harris has said, "The human person has very deep resources. We tend to live our lives on the surface and eclipse those deep and incredible resources. It happens on the individual as well as on the cultural level."

After the Quartet, Harris embarked upon a further cycle of novels beginning with Heartland, whose main character vanishes into the jungle (as Harris's own stepfather did), leaving only fragments of letters and notes. The Eye of the Scarecrow, The Waiting Room, Tumatumari, and Ascent to Omai, delve further into questions about the condition of irretrievable absence and loss. Yet for Harris, even the most dreadful conditions are intricately and indissolubly linked to processes of change which might reveal a further regeneration of possibility. Such regeneration is never glib or easy. But it is this motivating and empowering sense which Harris works through, as catastrophe and deprivation is understood to be in a difficult but actual relationship with emergent reality. Two volumes of short stories were followed by Black Marsden, subtitled "A Tabula Rasa Comedy," and set mainly in Scotland. Harris recognized in Scotland and in Scottish literature an implicit quality of diverse cultural and linguistic layers which corresponded with his understanding of the Caribbean, a country whose people were both exploiters and exploited, both a tributary and a backwater of empire. In Black Marsden, he takes a recognizable motif from Scottish fiction (the Devil as familiar tempter) and loads it with the unfamiliar depths of his vision. The following novels continued this process in Mexico, London, and later through the Carnival trilogy, in which the philosophical understanding of the relations between absence and presence, possession and loss, paradise, purgatory, and hell, is presented in fictional terms with diamond clarity and refractive depth.

With Resurrection at Sorrow Hill, Harris returned to motifs first used in the Quartet, grafting a highly complex set of observations and poetic myths onto the framework of a story with at least some roots in realism. Because the tale is set in an insane asylum located in the hinterlands of Guyana, it becomes possible to include all kinds of historical figures, using characters who believe themselves to be those people: Socrates, Montezuma, Leonardo, Karl Marx. The people outside the asylum are hardly more stable than the ones within, and Harris throws them together in a web of conflicting relationships.

Harris's peculiar distinction among modern novelists is threefold. He imagines in a complex dynamic and changing condition aspects of that condition which are normally held to be separate and static. He understands that imaginative act to be a radical departure from normal imaginative procedures, which are frequently run along familiar lines. And he embodies this in a major and invigorating sequence of novels which break down the rigidities of the form as drastically as they reconfirm potential in the protean forms of humanity.

—Alan Riach

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