Version classiqueVersion mobile

Revisiting Slave Narratives I

Judith Misrahi-Barak


How Wilson Harris’s Intuitive Approach to Writing Fiction Applies to Writing Novels about Slavery

Fred D’Aguiar

Texte intégral

  • 1 Hugh Thomas in his The Slave Trade (Picador, 1997) argues for 1440-1870 with Portugal as the inaugu (...)
  • 2 Foucault’s notion of a trauma held in common by a community invites individuals to think themselves (...)

1The act of revisiting the slave narrative form in fiction is, simultaneously, an act of memory and an act of the historical imagination. Memory becomes less an instance of personal trauma about slavery - not possible these days given the dates of the Atlantic Slave Trade1 - and more a collective and communal memory.2 This communal memory (the memory or selective amnesia of the tribe) combines with a fictional approach to slavery remembered from my apprenticeship as a fledging writer who read his way into a working knowledge of the art and craft of fiction. As a writer I am therefore indebted to other literary approaches to the past, the reading of which schooled me in my writing. In my case the model for my approach to slave narratives happens to be the Guyanese writer, Wilson Harris (born 1921) whose texts supply me with an intuitive approach to history, myth, landscape and to the writing of fiction. The historical imagination part of the equation concerns a mind and conscience geared to historical trauma as a means to tackling key problems of contemporary life. Rather than simply and straightforwardly imagine a present-day setting for novels, the historicized writing mind situates that imagination in a past era, but one deemed to bear a pivotal relationship to the present. A slave narrative becomes a prism through which the present is examined. This makes the enterprise more than historical recovery of lost and countless people (as if that were not enough) and converts a narrative act of recovery into a stage for asking questions not only of the contemporary but about how that return is staged in the first instance. In other words form and content are up for scrutiny in this mode of enquiry.

  • 3 The factual basis for intuition is a fragile one. Intuition relies on slants, asides, frailties, ze (...)
  • 4 Excellent critical exegesis of Palace abound (see Hena Maes-Jelinek and Michael Gilkes) so I spend (...)

2Wilson Harris writes about fiction as intuition3. His imagination works intuitively with slippages and fractures found in apparently cast-iron viewpoints that can be anything from the plasticity of a mythical mask to the fluidity of a massacre or event taken from history. If a view appears fixed and immutable the job of the intuitive imagination, in Harrisonian terms, appears to be to tease out fractures and vulnerabilities in that armory. Slavery is frequently presented as a fixed mode with a clear line drawn between good and bad, black and white. This is far from the truth when the stories (intuitively assembled) unfold. Rather than obfuscate the clear moral parameters of slavery - there is still a right way and a wrong way about those times - the conundrums facing individuals in specific situations with choices to make become the preserve of these intuitive fictions. A complex interplay between master and slave, memory and amnesia, man and woman, black and white, Africa and Europe, Old World and New World, operates at the expense of lists of fixed dualisms. For example, introduce an indigenous population into the Old World versus New World paradigm as Harris often does in his texts and the model converts from a dual fixity to multiple and fluid. Such intuitive returns to historical sites bring these complexities out of an otherwise immutable looking site of trauma and despair and they serve up, too, a modicum of what I can only call the redemptive for want of a better term. What ensues here is my attempt to trace the elements of this intuitive approach to fiction by Wilson Harris as seen in two examples: his first and his most recent novels4.

  • 5 “... after discarding three novels, I struck what I knew at last was the right note.” Preface to Th (...)

3Wilson Harris’ 1960 novel, Palace of the Peacock, his first to be published though fourth in order of composition5, opens with a gunshot. The shooter is part figment of the dreaming narrator’s mind and partly rooted in a real set of probabilities tied to the novel’s hated protagonist, Donne. Harris’ most recent novel, The Mask of the Beggar, his twenty third work of fiction, closes with a gunshot also divided between the imagined and somewhat real. The literary poise of that bullet, its recurrence and placement at the end of this latest novel opens it to a reading as Harris’ first novel in reverse. But with more than forty years between the two texts there is the added invitation to interpret the new novel as a backward glance by the artist at his oeuvre.

4While the form of The Mask of the Beggar recalls the first book, the content of this latest novel appears more diverse as it contends with a life in letters. The bullet is a self-conscious gesture and as such it begs for a re-examination of that life and those letters; the bullet bookends a panoply of novels and essays and the start and close of a literary life. If the difference between the two books is an increased self-awareness on the part of the writer (Harris’ enquiry into the nature of art and the formation of an artistic consciousness leads off this book, whereas in Palace other novelistic features, such as, the story as a journey and a concatenation of imagery as a mode of narration drive the novel to its closing artistic vision) there is too a greater understanding and deployment of his writer’s art. Palace moves from a conflicted world partitioned by sight and blindness, towards insight. It starts with group conflict and progresses to an individual state of self-realisation, a progression if ever there was one. By contrast, Mask begins with the fully cognizant artist figure whose journey is towards a deeper level of self-knowledge.

5In a further act of reversal between the two books - as if the first novel were held to a mirror in order to reflect back its latest incarnation - the crew of Palace is stripped down by its end to the single, waterfall-ascending spirit of the narrator. In contrast the single narrator of Mask morphs through his artistic production into a plurality of characters able to leap back into history and forwards from history into the present-day. Both novels privilege the notion of fiction as primarily philosophy but a mode of enquiry embedded in character and imagery rather than, say, event, or story (though the latter two are present in Harris’ novels to a limited extent).

  • 6 In his use of Pre-Columbian myths to inform his dreaming characters and landscapes as well as organ (...)

6Rather than the acquisition of self-knowledge as an end in itself as is the case in Palace, the goal of Mask is to demonstrate what amounts to an individual slant on Trotsky’s’ socio-economic notion of “perpetual revolution.” Insight for the narrator of Mask means continual self-evaluation through artistic endeavor, not something to be attained as an end in itself but as a means to further self-scrutiny. In this latest novel the artist’s studio acts as a world for generating people and ideas. There isn’t the usual reliance on an informing and interactive landscape as is the case with the first novel in which Guyana’s interior becomes a main character in the drama and ultimately alters the perspective of the narrator6.

  • 7 Both Harris and Wordsworth combine a suspension of time for the character in the text with a sense (...)
  • 8 Slave narratives engage with the dead in similar acts of philosophical recuperation: that is, stori (...)

7The story of The Mask of the Beggar works in classic Socratic fashion of question and answer, answer and another question in need of further clarification. This dualism is complicated and interrupted by sequences of action which occasion further reflection. Digression into, say, an item from antiquity serves to illustrate an argument and widen its resonance. For example, when the mother describes her son’s inability to eat lunch after he has seen a beggar in the street she puts it this way, “his abstention has created a Moment that undermines the gross, material appetites of the age.” (6) Such moments in the novel (that bear similarity to Wordsworth’s “spots of time” in “The Prelude”7) force on the artist temperament a garnering of disparate ideas not only to chase down the implications of an image or sensation but in obedience to the impetus of the artistic mind. Here is one such connection made by the narrator about an “Egyptian sarcophagus” that reads like a digression because it follows so closely behind the exploration of this moment of abstention without seeming to bear direct relation to it. “The mummified king, like sculpted wood, has food beside him. He is supposed to eat but his flesh undergoes a subtle and subconscious change not by satisfying an appetite but by a hunger of spirit that reaches beyond wealth or mummification.” (6) This apparent abstinence on the part of royal sarcophagus taken in conjunction with the abstention passage of the sensitive child, reads as nothing less than a quantum leap into metaphor, the yoking together of apparently disparate elements to show just how connected they really are as vehicles for ideas. An instance from antiquity gels with a contemporary experience. Past and present appear as continuous and in communion. By not eating the eight-year old mimics the state of grace of the dead king. The two, equal in spiritual terms though in different states (dead/living) and times (ancient/modern) unify for a moment behind their shared condition of abstention (enforced/voluntary). Royal figure as god and artist figure as god, cut, in effect, the same distinguished figure unified as they are behind a common act of abstention.8

8This is one of the reasons why the central artist figure dwells on his early childhood encounter with the beggar in the street. The brief encounter recalled initially by his mother signals for her an inkling of the artist her son would become in his later life. Presented as a seismic shift in outlook for the child the meeting with the beggar becomes a portal into the child’s flowering artistic sensibility. He cannot eat and he questions his mother about all manner of things tangentially related to the incident. The artist in his recollection of the event weaves his story and theory of how an artist is born and how his art works. The principle other in the dialogue, the mother of the artist, turns out to be as much a part of the production of his studio as the many presences from history, including Trotsky and Van Gogh, invoked by his art.

9The mother died in 1952 but her presence and reappearance in the novel set in 2000 derives from notebooks and sketches in the artist’s studio. The shift from imagined to real mother, while based on art and a trick of the imagination, she is dead yet she is a living presence in the son’s art, nevertheless has a real basis as part of the son’s early memory. This early memory of the artist at age eight with his mother while offered as an emblem of the flowering of the artistic persona also serves as impetus for the mother’s transformation from notebooks and sketches into a speaking character. On his way home from school for lunch the eight-year old sees a beggar on the corner of his street and the sighting startles him for a host of reasons.

  • 9 In The Naked Design: A Reading of Palace of the Peacock (Denmark: Dangaroo Press, 1976) Hena Maes-J (...)
  • 10 At any rate if a civilization is lost then its recovery relies on fragments which are rebuilt by a (...)

10The beggar’s face is weathered and scary to the child. But the male face suggests a father-figure to the boy’s mind. This suggestiveness of the beggar’s face is rooted in biography: the boy’s real father disappeared from his life when he was a baby and too young to remember him. Mythical father becomes real in this sighting of the beggar9. Wilson Harris uses the occasion to imply a classical return: that of Odysseus disguised as a beggar. By so doing he shows how biography intersects with myth and with history. This concern dovetails with that of a number of slave narratives in that the latter frequently frames the story of slavery as a mythical quest for freedom or put another way freedom of the spirit and mental processes in lieu of a deferred freedom of the body10.

11The weathered face of the beggar, the novel’s mask motif, suggests “fissures” and these are for the artist “moments” for contemplation. The mask invites further deliberation since it invites new connections to be made based on twin notions of its material reality, one belonging to the beggar’s excessive poverty, and the other, by resemblance, for his face is weathered and worn and impassive. These intuitive connections are the various possibilities of the novel suggested by myth, art, culture and history as they relate to the mask.

12The initial trauma is not generalized to that of a particular group taken from history and that group’s awareness of that history but for Harris it is entirely embedded in an individual encounter. The moment of trauma is personal and it widens out into history and myth as the mind investigates the source of the grievance. The fact that the boy who is riveted by the mask misses his father helps to get the quest underway but the larger goal is really the examination of the formation of an artistic consciousness aligned with godhead in terms of its responsibility to art and to the world.

13The mother is invoked in the same way. She is dead yet her centrality to the boy’s life extends into the life of the adult artist since she is still present in his studio in the form of sketches and in his notebooks and of course in his memory. These multiple associations between mother and son means the imaginative leap to make her real and bring her into dialogue with the son is not such a grand gesture after all. Harris points out continuities between the living and the dead, between dead mother and living artist son by crediting the artist impulse with an investment in memory as a living artifact.

  • 11 Fictional slave narratives work with “dead voices” too. The writer intuitively writes the voice dee (...)
  • 12 A character in a slave novel is not a memory but an invention. To an extent all memory is subject t (...)

14“My son claims he hears the real and subtle ‘voices’ of sculptures and paintings he makes in himself and translates them into words and into eloquent paint.” (8) The artist’s studio becomes a living space for these dead presences.11 The mother’s reappearance permits other souls from history and from mythology, none of them personally associated with the artist, to be invoked and fleshed out in his artistic investigation of what art can and cannot achieve12. A proper investigation of art in other words must be all inclusive, it must draw on myth, memory, history and the imagination otherwise it is not a full account of the artist’s terrain and scope.

15The artistic mind demands this wide scope. In the novel the painter pulls everything into his work in his studio even the proceedings outside his studio which happens to be a carnival procession and which takes in an intruder into the studio. The intruder interrupts the artist and adds to the artistic endeavour by his surprising appearance. The drama of the novel escalates at this point and when the intruder fires a shot at the artist and the bullet hits a portrait of the artist anything can happen. What happens is that art not the artist is killed or at least maimed. The artist hurts when his portrait is hit in a skewered version of Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray. The portrait bears responsibility for the life and art of the artist.

16Harris’s technique of a conventional setting, Water Street, Harbourtown in a fictional “gateway” South American country (read Guyana) reminds us of his fevered engagement with a world we recognise but one which he insists should be viewed differently. For example, in this passage about the passing of time during the making of art Harris writes, “Day visited the room in Water Street and Harbourtown. Day danced into a long visit. Painted dancing weeks, months, even years on a rare canvas of Sky. Time seemed more than Time, less than Time, in my holed eyes that looked across distances into visible and invisible stars. Day was Night, Night was Day in my holed eyes.” (31)

  • 13 This should be seen not necessarily as an endorsement by Harris of an individual psychology at the (...)

17In order to achieve the reversal of the last sentence, Harris begins four sentences earlier with the day presented as a character simply by omitting the definite article. He continues by stretching the sense of time and how time passes outside of the conventional measurement of it with that verb “danced.” This flavors the day, distinguishes how it is seen, skewers it and thereby immediately throws it into the realm of the psychological13. We cannot help wondering about the mind of the narrator and what he wishes us to think about time if the day behaves like this and lingers beyond its natural time. The activity of painting imbues time with this dream quality. The moment is stretched and becomes an emotional and intellectual riff lasting well beyond the reach of its chronology. Time is suspended. Just as in Wordsworth though with less of Wordsworth’s faith in a reversion to things as they were before the dive into the moment. This view of time applies to slave narratives which stretch the realistic passage of time enough to accommodate the story’s ethical frame. The artist extends time and suspends it as he works on canvas that is so real for him it replaces the things it is meant to represent. So art for this artist is more than simple representation. Art is origination, if this can be taken to mean the generation of new insights from old fragments. Artistic endeavour results in an original work of art when that work covers vast geographical distances in imaginative leaps and bounds. The artist in Mask defies linear timelines for a coterminous past and present. He envisions a continuous present of the past and present in the past.

  • 14 In his 1964 essay, “Tradition and the West Indian Novel”, collected in Tradition, the Writer and So (...)

18In The Mask of the Beggar the artist emerges as a god. The Tireses-figure - both genders present in one body therefore an imagination able to generate both or self-proliferate - and the recurring snake-bird concept of Quetzacoatle (another shape-shifting double that signals not either/or but both) from Mayan myth, makes the artist a creator or god. From his note at the beginning of the novel it is clear that Wilson Harris’s artistic remit includes a challenge issued by the artist to the homogeneity of globalisation, what he calls “a dominant code.” He calls for a return to a cross-cultural diversity not just between and within cultures but in novels which ought to engage these coexistent realities or risk subscribing to stale uniformity. The uniformity in conventional fiction14 is presented as a betrayal of complexities that would enrich our lives and by omitting these complexities conventional novels collude in globalisation’s reliance on homogeneity for its successes.

  • 15 See Charles Olsen’s “Maximus Poems” edited by George Butterick. University of California Press, 198 (...)

19In his latest novel Harris continues to shun the easy courtships and complicities between writers as entertainers coupled with readers who only read to confirm what they already know. His intuitive imagination, complicated by the myths in history and history as myth, historicizes and mythologizes the body. The temporal body is transmogrified. Concomitantly, artistic consciousness, in that body, is deified. Harris rightly insists on an element of surprise in almost every sentence that he writes, weighted as his sentences are by a collapse of linear time for a synchronicity of past and present. His linkages of phrases, the sense of their sound, his use of compound words, verbal nouns and noun-verbs, and the way submerged main clauses in his sentences built on tonal riffs established by subordinate clauses; all demonstrate an intuitive approach at work as it alters what the art perceives and how those perceptions occur. Form, while it is an extension of content15, also truly extends content. Harris’s intuitive approach underscores a mutual process of discovery for writer and reader alike. And this may well be the sole shared complicity between reader and writer: a contractual willingness to remain open to whatever a vulnerable and intuitive approach happens upon.


Works cited

Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery. Blackwells, 1997.

Bundy, Andrew (ed). Selected Essays of Wilson Harris. Routledge, 1999.

Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. Harcourt, 1927.

Harris, Wilson. Palace of the Peacock. Faber, 1960.

Harris, Wilson. Tradition, the Writer and Society. London: New Beacon, 1967.

Harris, Wilson. The Mask of the Beggar. Faber, 2003.

Kundera, Milan. The Art of the Novel. Faber, 1988.

Lacan, Jacques. Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis, tr. Anthony Wilden. John Hopkins UP, 1981.

Maes-Jelinek, Hena. The Naked Design: A Reading of Palace of the Peacock. Dangaroo Press, Denmark, 1976.

Maes-Jelinek, Hena (ed). Wilson Harris: The Uncompromising Imagination. Dangaroo Press, 1991.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark. Harvard 1992.

Olsen, Charles. Maximus Poems, edited by George Butterick. Univ. of California Press, 1983.

Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade. Picador, 1997.

Yeats, William Butler. Essays and Introductions. Macmillian, 1971.


1 Hugh Thomas in his The Slave Trade (Picador, 1997) argues for 1440-1870 with Portugal as the inaugural nation and Cuba as the recalcitrant one. See Robin Blackburn’s more in-depth and engaging The Making of New World Slavery (Blackwells, 1997) for a full discussion of these dates.

2 Foucault’s notion of a trauma held in common by a community invites individuals to think themselves into the trauma as an act of identification with the community. For artists such imaginative acts result in a transformation of that trauma from a general and passive communal memory to a specific and living work of art; a story, song canvas or installation. An imaginative immersion into the history by the individual converts trauma and all the stasis implied by it for those immobilized by the memory, into a site of productive catharsis, while it historicizes the body, and makes living once more an era that was in danger of becoming an abstraction. Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and Toni Morrison’s Beloved are examples of this. In his 1972 interview with Reinhard Sander and Ian Munro reprinted in The Caribbean Writer Volume 17, 2003, Harris warns of a danger of reinvoking a group trauma from the past, “The facts are true, but a syndrome occurs which in relating itself to the facts becomes something other than the facts. A certain psychological stasis is born, which I call the ‘victim stasis’.”

3 The factual basis for intuition is a fragile one. Intuition relies on slants, asides, frailties, zeroes in on them in fact in order to construct its own edifices which in turn are open to similar processes of revision.

4 Excellent critical exegesis of Palace abound (see Hena Maes-Jelinek and Michael Gilkes) so I spend more time on The Mask of the Beggar (Faber, 2003). It is worth noting that Palace’s voyage upriver is a replica of a nineteenth century Dutch mission up Guyana’s Essequibo River. At one level the novel’s frame can be said to be historical in its replication of the earlier expedition. As a multi-layered novel other tiers would include myth (pre-Columbian), allegory (individual quest for enlightenment or an allegory of a search for nationhood - out of many one), symbolic (landscape as dreamscape informing individual insight, that is, landscape as instruction and the construction of sense) and fiction or storytelling as a means for conducting philosophical enquiry into the nature of consciousness and of art.

5 “... after discarding three novels, I struck what I knew at last was the right note.” Preface to The Guyana Quartet (London: Faber, 1984): 9.

6 In his use of Pre-Columbian myths to inform his dreaming characters and landscapes as well as organize events in his novels, Harris’s natural forebear is said to be the 1967 Nobel Laureate from Guatemala, poet and novelist Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1974). Martin Seymour-Smith, in his Financial Times review printed on 27 February 1975 said of Harris’s Companions of the Day and Night (Faber, 1975), “Here Harris has entered Latin American territory (Mexico), and he explores, simultaneously, its myths and everyday realities in something like the manner Asturias explored those of Guatemala.”

7 Both Harris and Wordsworth combine a suspension of time for the character in the text with a sense of the measurement of time as an experience for the reader. While time freezes for the character caught in a return to an earlier experience located in the place he finds himself in for the second time, the reader is handed the continuity of time which continues to flow in the reading body and alters how the character is seen as a result of looking into that character ’s past. Ordinarily, that is, minus any of the time warps or time bends of narration, the passage of time or its arc as a fiction reading experience is just about the hardest element of fiction to master. Slave narratives are full of such double views of time: fictional time and the historical setting of the story is a distinct pair, as is the contemporary tone of some slave narratives versus their investment in a distinct past. Then there is the time of the reader who so quickly becomes aware of the separate timeline of the life of the novel’s characters (as opposed to when the novel is set).

8 Slave narratives engage with the dead in similar acts of philosophical recuperation: that is, stories of lost bodies (aesthetics) carry the ideas (ethics) surrounding those unjustly lost lives. The difference may be that the slave narrative is more aware of its story taking the place of countless lost stories whereas for Harris the link cuts across time to form allegiances between types of godhead, here royal and artist.

9 In The Naked Design: A Reading of Palace of the Peacock (Denmark: Dangaroo Press, 1976) Hena Maes-Jelinek calls this coupling of limited body with infinite dream capacity Harris’s “twofold nature” (12), that is, his ability to write a character as both located in time and place and imbued with consciousness which overrides restrictions of time and place.

10 At any rate if a civilization is lost then its recovery relies on fragments which are rebuilt by a process of intuitive enquiry. This is true of the so-called neo-slave narrative as well. It too invests much in fragmented detail to provide an in-road into a retrieval of undocumented populations submerged in history.

11 Fictional slave narratives work with “dead voices” too. The writer intuitively writes the voice deemed to be submerged or lost in that history. The slave novel full of such imagined voices amounts to an act of reclamation of those lost souls.

12 A character in a slave novel is not a memory but an invention. To an extent all memory is subject to a degree of embellishment. But in novels about slavery the historical premise is predicated by the fact that the return is an imaginative one. Even when the character of the slave novel is taken from history, more often than not, the portrait in the novel serves the larger idea of an investigation of slavery, rather than any loyalty to a real person. The imagination is able to flesh out a character from the leanest fragments in history. In this sense much of the fiction is intuitive in the way it proceeds from these fragments to build fully-realized characters. In fact (and this may sound slightly perverse) the imagination relies on the slippages, absences, losses of populations silenced by a history of slavery for the imagination’s recuperative powers to come fully into play.

13 This should be seen not necessarily as an endorsement by Harris of an individual psychology at the root of artistic temperament but as a shift from outer landscape and views of it to inner psychology and how the body feels as it experiences the world. Inner and outer worlds interact. Harris portrays the move into a dream realm to show how the artist’s imagination operates with memory and sensory stimuli as its raw materials. In that passage he plots the move from logical time to dream time. It is one of many instances in his fiction where he traces this transitional moment and movement. The alteration in outlook shapes utterances by the artist. In a novel about slavery the figure with this outlook would be a slave or the novel’s main protagonist. In this sense the realm of the slave novel is psychological since it is rooted in character, however deep the portrayal, rather than temperament. The distinction I make here between character and temperament does not hold true for every case of an historical novel held against a novel by Harris.

14 In his 1964 essay, “Tradition and the West Indian Novel”, collected in Tradition, the Writer and Society (London: New Beacon, 1967) Harris defines what he calls “the novel of persuasion” as the chief culprit in this oversimplication of experience which sells short the capacities of the human spirit.

15 See Charles Olsen’s “Maximus Poems” edited by George Butterick. University of California Press, 1983.


© Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2005

Licence OpenEdition Books

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search