In Wilson Harris’ The Eye of the Scarecrow the diarist-narrator records his reflection on a crowd of strikers:
“It was the devil’s abyss blocking the way, I dreamt (as if every hopeful intuition I possessed was now all at once overturned in the midst of unexpected perils), the irony and nihilism of spirit I suddenly saw which bore such a close, almost virtuous resemblance to the unprejudiced reality of freedom I was seeking to entertain;
[The Eye of the Scarecrow p. 18]
This statement is not meaningless. In Harris’ fiction, to substitute one materialistic conception for another is to be caught in a dangerous kind of realism — dangerous especially because it seems to be progressive. For Harris, the creative art of the novel consists in freeing the character from just this kind of terrible materialism. In the Guiana Quartet, there is no social density, and the movement of the individual, the sovereign and imperfect character, is always towards a kind of spiritual union and metamorphosis. For example, the “I” narrator who confesses to his imperfection: “Did 1 ever write and tell you that I am actually going blind in one eye?” comes to a transcendental resting-place after a weary quest:
One was what I am in the music-buoyed and supported above dreams by the undivided soul and anima in the universe from whom the word of dance and creation first came. . . It was the dance of all fulfilment I now held and knew deeply, cancelling my forgotten fear of strangeness and catastrophe in a destitute world.
[Palace of the Peacock p. 152]
It is possible to argue that this kind of mystical apotheosis is just as illusory as “the dead tide of self- indulgent realism”, but such an argument could be endless, and is not central. The meaningful point is that after Palace of the Peacock, Harris does not follow his vision through to this ultimate phase. There is instead, a disturbing awareness of possibilities. I shall discuss some of the implications of this kind of development in Harris’ work later, but it will be sufficient at this stage to document this particular evolution and to suggest its main effect.
At the end of The far Journey of Oudin indeed, “Ram felt the sudden loss and tension of the visionary umbilical cord ………stretching from far away out of a faint servant in the sun.” At the end of The Whole Armour, the dead hand of Peet carries a promise: “Cristo would be free in the end, it seemed to state, in an armour superior to the elements of self-division and coercion”. And at the end of The Secret Ladder, the troubled Fenwick has a strange dream:…. “the echoes of annunciation grew on every hand and became resonant with life…. In our end….our end…our end is our beginning…. beginning….beginning. Fenwick awoke. It was the dawn of the seventh day.” In not following his vision to its ultimate phase, Mr. Harris retains tension in the drama of consciousness which is played out in the Quartet.
This drama of consciousness in which we become increasingly involved in Harris’ work finds its opening cue in the primordial world which he so powerfully evokes. It is an
immense and unpredictable landscape, brooding forest and seething river, crumbling marshland and pegasse lakes infested with tacouba. Carew’s pork-knocking country which is also derived from the Guianese interior, contains traces of this vast elemental life, but it is in Harris’ phenomenal world, the world of corrosive sensibility which Harris finds missing in A House for Mr. Biswas that one begins “to distrust one’s preconceptions and to dig for a revelation or vision of life which is beyond the conventional modes of expression.” In Palace of the Peacock, the imperfect “I” narrator comes into eonsciousness of this spirited place:
“The trees rose round me into upward flying limbs when I screwed my eyes to stare from underneath above. At last I lifted my head into a normal position. The forest rustled and rippled with a sigh and ubiquitous step. I stopped dead where I was, frightened for no reason whatever. The step near me stopped and stood still. I stared round me wildly, in surprise and terror, and my body grew faint and trembling as a woman’s or a child’s. I gave a loud ambushed cry which was no more than an echo of myself — a breaking and grotesque voice, man and boy, age and youth speaking together”.
This is not simply an evocation of a spirit of place. The narrator’s grotesque voice, “man and boy, age and youth speaking together” is a lightning invocation. He recovers to find himself supported by old Schomburgk and young Carroll. It is as if Schomburgk and Carroll were waiting for the crisis. Any tendency to identify exclusively with the “I” narrator is quickly dispersed as we become aware that both Carroll and Schomburgk in spite of their differing superficial responses, suffer along with the narrator. The characters are spectres to one another, and we visualize them in a chain of association. In the Guiana Quartet, we are always aware of this “germ of associating sovereign truth and humility,” the cancellation of individual status in a historical context.
Thus already, the Guiana Quartet shifts away from the central preoccupation of the conventional novel. We must now examine its structure. In this way, it will be possible to demonstrate further its unconventional nature, and to emphasize its cohesion. Each of the novels lends itself to a description in terms of its own particular focus. The details of the description and the extracts quoted will of themselves suggest why there are particular difficulties in the way of the reader. But these same details should intimate that the effort of imaginative concentration is worthwhile and exciting.
In Palace of the Peacock, the focus is upon one action — a journey up-river. But we become bewilderingly aware that it is a journey which has been going on for centuries and centuries. As such, it seems to carry a variety of motives. The figures involved in the action are a fused and confusing assembly of the living, the dead, the resurrected and the dreaming. With dismay, we realise that the “I” narrator who is living the journey with the crew of dead men is capable of being involved — to the point of total immersion — in all these times and motives. At various points, therefore, he disappears altogether. He is not a reliable narrator at all. The contradictions are somewhat resolved when we realize that the reductive and expansive focus is a way of flooding us with a consciousness of what the journey means. The spiritual factor cancels every degrading materialistic impulse in the characters, and every preconceived order of experience in the reader.