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Re-Imagining the Guyanas

 | 
Lawrence Aje
, 
Thomas Lacroix
, 
Judith Misrahi-Barak

Writing and Imagining the 3 Guyanas

Re-writing Man in the Guyanas

T. J. Cribb

Texte intégral

  • 1 Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016; 54.

1It is a commonplace that most people in the three Guyanas live on the narrow strip of ground along the coast. This pattern of settlement is because the three nations share the same fundamental geology defining the region, the Guyana Shield. The Shield’s boundaries to the north, west and south are marked by two giant rivers, the Orinoco and the Amazon, each springing from the Andes. It is drained by no fewer than 47 principal rivers of its own, and the fringe of coastal ground between the Shield and the Atlantic is the alluvial deposit of these rivers. Hence the human population settled on the fringe is also a kind of deposit, whether carried down the rivers from the highlands, or up the rivers on the intruding tides of the Atlantic. In the latter case, the human settlements are invasive, whether Carib or, in more recent times, European. The European settlements conform to the pattern noted by Amitav Ghosh in his book on colonialism as one of the drivers of climate change, The Great Derangement, where he notes that New York, Mumbai and Kolkata are all coastal cities, ‘brought into being by early globalisation’.1 Similarly, the capitals of the three Guyanas are built at the mouths of rivers, for the rivers gave access to the interior, from which resources for the metropolis were to be extracted.

  • 2 Wallace, Alfred Russel. ‘On the Monkeys of the Amazon’. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of L (...)

2Human geography thus runs counter to the general principle of bio-geography first propounded as a result of research in this region by the great natural scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace. He announced the principle in his paper ‘On the Monkeys of the Amazon,’ read to the Zoological Society of London in December 1852.2 His observations either side of the Rio Negro led him to conclude that rivers constitute natural species barriers, a principle which, supported by later observations in the Malaysian archipelago, enabled him to develop his world atlas of The Geographical Distribution of Animals (1886), the basis for bio-geographers ever since. For humans, by contrast, wielding the ever-developing technology of the boat, the river barrier was an opening, a highway, a means of penetrating the interior. Either way, rivers are clearly major determinants of natural and human life in the Guyanas.

  • 3 Harris, Wilson.’The Native Phenomenon’ in Explorations, Hena Maes-Jelinek, ed. Mundelstrup, Denmar (...)
  • 4 In Another Life, Mélanie Joseph-Vilain, and Judith Misrahi-Barak, eds. Series PoCoPages, Coll. ‘Ho (...)
  • 5 Glissant, Edouard. Le Discours antillais. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1981; 255.

3Another natural scientist who spent the first fifteen years of his professional life on expeditions to the interior in order to observe and measure those rivers was Wilson Harris, and the way he represents human life in his novels is profoundly shaped not only by his personal experiences, by what he calls ‘the shock of great rapids and complex landscapes,’ but also by the scientific principles informing the methodology of observation and measurement.3 It is these principles that enable him to assert that his responses to those experiences in his writing are not only ‘an intuitive correspondence’ but also ‘an objective validation of landscape in depth’ (54). In the context of science the word ‘objective’ is not used lightly. In this connection, readers of this Series will know the thought-provoking essay by Fred D’Aguiar, ‘Wilson Harris: the Writer as Surveyor’.4 D’Aguiar suggests that the discoveries of the surveyor shape the imaginative artist and that ‘the complex though submerged reality’ (36) of the river-beds revealed by his science helped Harris to realise the submerged forces emerging from the sub-conscious at work in his art. These insights ring true. They chime with Edouard Glissant’s larger claim for the novel of the Americas that, ‘Pour nous, l’élément formellement déterminant dans la production littéraire, c’est ce que j’appellerais la parole du paysage’.5 D’Aguiar goes on to say that ‘By coincidence Guyana’s interior behaved like this human sub-conscious’ (33). However, coincidences are accidental and as such, though perhaps suggestive, are intrinsically meaningless, and in similes the two terms remain essentially different entities, with one (the natural) serving merely to illustrate the other (the human); there is no reciprocity in the relationship and the subject position of the human is privileged. In the light of Glissant’s larger claim, I believe the way Harris represents the relationships between man and nature can be analysed in considerably stronger terms than coincidence and similitude. Indeed, in Harris’s writings the language of landscape speaks not only in Glissant’s specifically Caribbean accent but in the even more far-reaching terms of the Anthropocene, thirty years before the International Union of Geological Sciences began to consider whether that term was needed to describe the drastic interactions of man and nature as revealed by the stratigraphic record. I will therefore attempt to take D’Aguiar’s argument further by introducing different terms of analysis. Instead of literary simile I suggest something more like scientific causality, in which perspective the relation of the two terms reverses and it is the human that behaves according to the laws of the natural.

  • 6 Cribb, T.J. ‘T.W. Harris, Sworn Surveyor’. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature xxix (1993): 33– (...)

4In pursuing this line of argument I build on my earlier studies drawing on Harris’s actual survey books. Along with hundreds of others by successive generations of surveyors, these (now destroyed in an office clearance) were once preserved in the vaults of the Department of Land and Surveys in Georgetown. They constituted an archive of the project for a universal, scientific cartography that accompanied the expansion of Europe, and which enabled definition of colonial boundaries, territorial control and the establishment of rights of property in land, a project subverted by Harris as it were from the inside in novels such as The Secret Ladder, where the protagonist is a troubled surveyor.6

  • 7 Harris, Wilson. ‘A Talk on the Subjective Imagination’, in Explorations, Maes-Jelinek, Hena, ed. M (...)
  • 8 Mellor, Hugh. Real Time. Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  • 9 Cribb, T.J. ‘Place and Time: The Two Anchors’ in The Cross-Cultural Legacy. Gordon Collier, Geoffr (...)

5The same records helped to document and illuminate some of Harris’s essays, such as his ‘A Talk on the Subjective Imagination’.7 Subjectivity is here very different from that of the Western individual, whether Enlightenment or Romantic, and is explored in terms of a strikingly materialist idea of time as constituted by events in space. This idea of time, independently arrived at by Harris through reflection on his experiences as a surveyor, chimes with the philosophy of time developed in the early twentieth century on idealist premises by McTaggart, phenomenologically by Husserl, and elaborated later, on emphatically physical principles, by the Cambridge philosopher, Hugh Mellor8. It is from the grounding of time on events in space that Harris derives his dynamics of a natural unconscious within individual and social psychologies, implicitly informing all his novels and explicitly applied in his lectures on the suppressed black presence in American literature in The Womb of Space (1983).9

6Seen in the perspectives deriving from those experiences and those principles, man is no longer the measure of all things, as he has been in the Humanistic tradition descending from the European Renaissance. Man has accordingly to be re-written. In addition, and here he goes further than Ghosh, Harris explores the ways in which the relationship between the metropolitan cities and their colonial offspring is not simply one-way but reciprocal. At the demographic level, this is evident enough in the reflux of emigration from colony to capital from the 1950s onwards. Less obviously, the way Harris represents human life in the metropolis is in the light of the perspectives he discovered in the colony, not the other way round. Metropolitan man is understood not only at the level of economic, social and political interactions but at the fundamental level of interaction with the natural world. Human nature is first understood and re-written in response to the physical environment of the Guyanas and that understanding is then extended to the re-writing of man in the metropolis.

7After all, London too is a settlement on the alluvial deposits of an estuary, and many imperial cities of Europe—Venice, Genoa, Lisbon, Amsterdam—are, like the capitals of the Guyanas, built on estuaries, with the historical difference that the estuaries were used to give access to the outer world as well as to their own interiors. Another difference is that the physical scale of the Guyana Shield makes obvious the geological time scale and conditions underlying the ephemeral human Bildungsromanen playing out on its coastal fringe, whereas the low hills that form the banks of the Thames valley and flood plain can more easily be overlooked as agents shaping the human settlements.

  • 10 Harris, Wilson. Da Silva da Silva’s Cultivated Wilderness and Genesis of the Clowns. London: Faber (...)
  • 11 Maes-Jelinek, Hena. The Labyrinth of Universality. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2006; 253, n.29.

8Harris expresses the reciprocal relationship between metropolis and colony by a formal device: he publishes two novels, Da Silva da Silva’s Cultivated Wilderness and Genesis of the Clowns, in one volume, thus making a diptych to invite comparison.10 Immediately apparent is that both open with violent death: Da Silva apparently in the instant of a plane crash, Genesis with news in a letter from Georgetown of the death of a man called Hope, who had worked for the narrator as foreman on expeditions to the interior; at the end we learn that his death was violent. Most of what happens in the two novels occurs in Guyana and in the past as remembered by the narrators. Both live in the district of London near the upper floor flat in Holland Villas Road (backing onto a tennis court) where Harris himself lived at the time of writing. The location is significant, for this road marks the boundary between expensive, high cultural and posh West Kensington and Chelsea, and the much poorer area of North Kensington, home to many British West Indians and the Notting Hill Carnival. According to Harris’s most devoted critic, the late Hena Maes-Jelinek, although Genesis comes second in the volume it was written first.11 This supports my claim that London is seen in the light of Guyana, so I will follow that priority.

9The news of Hope’s death throws the narrator’s mind back to an expedition on the Abary River, and a night of violent storm. In his hammock in the tent Hope has erected for him, the narrator sees the tarpaulin above his head sagging under the weight of water, but, as he moves to push it away, a sound as of a gunshot rings out, the hammock collapses, the ridge pole cracks, and he is nearly brained as it comes down. At this moment Hope appears ‘with imprinted gun in the half-lightning, half-darkness’, to be met with the exclamation: ‘God damn it Hope. You could have killed me’ (85).

10Hope is in fact coming to help him. But this does not mean the threatened violence is mere illusion, as the narrator is inclined to wish: ‘I was tempted to set it aside as if nothing existed. Who or what was Hope but an employee to do my bidding, a piece of furniture on survey expedition?’ (82). It is precisely this attitude towards Hope which itself is the source of the fear, already implicit in the lay-out of the camp: ‘I told him to put up two tents—one for me alone (my hammock, chair, table, personal effects, books, tide charts, maps, river graphs, etc.)—the other a safe one or two hundred yards away for the men’ (83). The narrator is in the same position as any imperial explorer with his native bearers, a position also built into the social geography of Holland Park or indeed any city. So it is the narrator’s own subconscious fear of Hope that has ‘imprinted’ the gun in his hand, a fear derived from the suppressions and divisions of social hierarchy, but triggered by the fear of the storm.

  • 12 Harris, Wilson. The Radical Imagination. Alan Riach and Mark Williams, eds. Liège: L3 Liège Langua (...)

11Among the many items of furniture that Hope and the men have carried is the table at which the narrator sits every fortnight to pay their wages. He remembers how Hope as foreman would call them up one by one, standing beside him as witness to the transaction. As the men present themselves, each prompts an associated set of memories and these form the episodes of the novel, which thus takes its form from the economic activity of the expedition. Each episode amounts to a novella, each with the time-scheme belonging to its protagonist, thereby disrupting any sense of linear narrative progression and temporally disorienting the reader. The pay-table becomes a memory theatre, at which the narrator feels compelled to ‘re-open the paysheet of the Abary’ (102) in a revisionary settling of accounts. It is also a sort of confessional, not only for the narrator but for the author too, for it would have been at the same table that, in the night, after writing up the day’s data of theodolite bearings, water volumes and velocities by the light of his hurricane lamp, Harris would have carried on writing, struggling to find a radically new language adequate to the overwhelming presence of the rivers and forests of the interior.12 And this radically new way of writing man is carried on the backs of illiterate porters. Critical self-reflexivity, a distinguishing feature of Modernist art, is thus given a strikingly material turn as the physical labour of writing is made continuous with the labour of the expedition, each problematically enmeshed in the same economic nexus.

12After the night’s storm, the narrator’s reaction is to re-double his work-drive. As leader, his responsibility is to record all the scientific readings in a Levels Book, the form required for hydrographic surveying, specially printed with columns for the various kinds of data. But a strange thing happens. As he enters the data, ‘trying to shut out of my mind what I thought I had seen, my busy hand paused, intervened with contrary dancing sketches in the margins’ (86). His hand seems to move of its own accord. It behaves like the needle of a surveying instrument, automatically responding to variations in the natural forces to which it is attuned. Some instruments record by up-and-down movements of a pen on an unrolling drum of paper, and the result is a graph. Time-varying spatial values of a river are thus recorded as time-varying spatial values on paper, which can then be laid out flat and read serially as a narrative of the variations. The instrument thus translates natural events and forces into narrative writing; it writes space into time. The narrator’s hand behaves like just such an instrument; the dancing sketches are a form of automatic writing in pictures.

13There are striking parallels between this procedure and that of another great artist of Guyana and its rivers, Frank Bowling, especially in the map paintings and poured paintings of the 1970s, which established his reputation in New York. His principal critic, Mel Gooding, describes the radically experimental procedure:

  • 13 Gooding, Mel. ‘Bowling at Spritmuseum: Landscapes of the Spirit’ in Frank Bowling Traingone. Vera (...)

The poured paintings were created by means of a mechanical device of Bowling’s own invention: an adjustable tilting board which allowed the paint to flow downwards over the stretched canvas at different velocities [. . .]. The essentially mechanical process of pouring eliminated the diversities and perversities of the personally expressive stroke and mark, giving these paintings, instead, the natural dynamics of pure gravity [. . .].The image thus created was essentially automatic.13

  • 14 Harris, Wilson, ‘Review’. Wasafiri 12 (1997): 96-98. Lorna Burns calls attention to this review in (...)

14Now automatic writing (or pouring) cannot but remind one of Surrealism, and Gooding indeed adds that ‘the heady spirit of Surrealism was still in the air, though hidden or disguised’ (34). Harris was acquainted with this spirit. In his review of Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski’s anthology, Refusal of the Shadow. Surrealism and the Caribbean (London: Verso, 1996), Harris pays tribute to ‘the daring, sincerity, and importance’ of the Surrealist movement, but parts company with Césaire’s Romantic demonization of science, instead insisting that we ignore the ‘hidden spirituality’ of science at our peril.14

  • 15 Hampshire, Stuart. ‘A Kind of Materialism’. Freedom of Mind and Other Essays. Oxford: Clarendon Pr (...)
  • 16 Mercer, Kobena. ‘Wilfredo Lam’s Afro-Atlantic Routes’ in Wilfredo Lam, Catherine David, ed. London (...)

15That review comes twenty years later. More immediately apposite is an essay by the philosopher, Stuart Hampshire, which furnishes Harris with one of the epigraphs for the novel. The essay describes an earlier philosopher who appears to be strikingly modern but whose identity Hampshire teasingly withholds until the end, a philosopher who ‘thinks of persons as intricately designed instruments, which register and record changes in their environment’15—exactly what we have seen the narrator doing. Nature, filtered through the psychology of the human, thereby writes man. Now the philosopher whose identity Hampshire withholds turns out to be Spinoza (1632-1677), and what makes him modern is his embrace of the new science, thanks to which he, unlike his contemporaries, could ‘view human beings solely as one kind of natural object among others’ (Hampshire 1972: 211). In such a view the unconscious will take a different form from the Freudian one cultivated by the Surrealists, or, more exactly, by the European Surrealists. What makes the difference is the Caribbean, as the great Cuban painter, Wilfredo Lam, testified: ‘In an automatic way, as the Surrealists would say, this new world began to surface within me.’16 Kobena Mercer quotes this in his catalogue essay for the recent exhibition of Lam’s work, and develops the ‘immense implications’ of ‘a spatiality that can no longer be mapped in dualistic separations of near/far, surface/depth or outside/inside’—in other words of Humanistic Renaissance perspective (30). The natural world of the Caribbean reconfigures man in both painting and writing. As Glissant says in his essay on the Novel of the Americas already quoted, ‘Il s’agit [. . .] de l’apparition d’un homme nouveau’ (256).

16Harris thus derives from his scientific activity a new version of the Classical idea of the muse, that mysterious source of inspiration that artists obey by intuition rather than deliberate calculation. The Greeks attributed a different source of inspiration to each art, and since these are ‘dancing sketches’ his muse must be Terpsichore, muse of dance, an art of the body in space. Harris’s novels, including those set in London, may thus be read as his elaborated dancing sketches, and their muse as physical space itself, primarily the space of the Guyanas, especially as opened up by the rivers. That is where man is re-written.

17Let us return to the Abary expedition and D’Aguiar’s comparison between the submerged reality of river-beds and the writer’s sub-conscious. The volume and rate of flow of the Abary is affected by variations in its bed, so this has to be mapped by the expedition. To do this, a line is stretched from bank to bank to make a cross-section, and little flags are tied to it at intervals, their fluttering signals corresponding to each variation in depth gauged by plumb line at those points. This scientific activity again prompts an involuntary response in the margins of the Levels Book. This time an element of deliberate intention is added, for the narrator ‘plant[s] on the heads of technical bodies a variety of prime ministerial or military functions as upholders of new flags upon cubic feet / breathless bodies of the globe’ (87); the doodles become political caricatures. Thus satirically inscribed, the dancing sketches now signal that the forces which motivated imperial occupation continue to drive the development programmes of the postcolonial state, sometimes with similarly disastrous results. The surveying expedition on which the novel is based was carried out in 1948; twenty years later, according to Wikipedia, the largest Arawak settlement on the upper Abary river was submerged by a reservoir.17

18Because of a distinctive feature of the river being surveyed, the writing takes a further and deeper turn, and this will take us back to Ghosh on climate change. The Abary flows to the Atlantic along coastal lowlands, hence with less momentum than rivers descending from the highlands. Consequently, many miles before it reaches the sea, at each incoming tide the Atlantic forces its way upstream beneath the surface of the still out-flowing river. To measure this phenomenon, hydrographers ascertain at what depth beneath the surface the tide begins to move and find this out once more by aid of little flags. These are carried above the surface of the water on floats, connected down to other floats suspended at various depths below. When the returning tide moves the submerged floats, the flags above begin ‘suddenly to move against the stream’ (87)—a disconcerting, even uncanny effect, especially for the Amerindian member of the expedition, who has never before left the highlands, never seen a tide, still less objects apparently moving of their own accord against the current.

  • 18 Hesse, Mary. Forces and Fields. The Concept of Action at a Distance in the History of Physics. Lon (...)

19I choose the word ‘uncanny’ because it captures the element of fear in the complex reactions of disbelief, wonder and laughter at what seems an unnatural or even supernatural phenomenon. Such reactions have a long history in the philosophy of science, as Mary Hesse has shown, because to witness an effect without being able to see the material cause defies common sense; hence Einstein famously resisted the hypotheses of quantum mechanics as ‘spukhafte Fernwirkung in einem Abstand’ (spooky action at a distance).18 Interestingly, in his book on climate change already cited, Amitav Ghosh chooses just this word to describe ‘the strangeness of what is unfolding around us (. . . ) not merely in the sense of being unknown or alien [but] in that we recognize something we had turned away from: the presence and proximity of nonhuman interlocutors’; he calls it the ‘environmental uncanny’ (Ghosh 2016: 30, 32). Comparison with European Surrealism has already shown that Harris’s idea of the unconscious and return of the repressed is not articulated in the Freudian psychodynamics of the European bourgeois family (although those are not necessarily excluded). Instead, when the flags begin to move, the narrator comments that ‘one was aware not only of wheels within wheels but of revolutions turning in opposite and contrary directions’ (87).

20Allusion to wheels and revolutions in the context of nature may seem strange, but then, the events themselves seem un-natural. Also, we have seen that the narrator’s fear in the storm expresses itself through the distorting filter of his social psychology, and if a psychology is social it must carry a potential for revolution in the political sense. Underneath the social and political, however, as he reflects on the contrary movements of his hand and the flags, the narrator recognises that the ultimate reference points are those recorded in the Levels Books, the scientific observations and records of what he calls ‘the cultures of seas and rivers’ (87). Now the word ‘culture’ usually serves to distinguish the human from the natural, for example in Lévi-Strauss’s distinction, which he elaborated with reference to Amerindian people, between the raw and the cooked. But here the concept of culture belongs to nature itself, so the distinction collapses. ‘Man’ is part of nature’s culture, not an exception, let alone above it—that hierarchical distinction also collapses in a revolution that may in the first instance be ontological, but which must inevitably have political consequences.

  • 19 Pascal, Blaise. ‘Pensée 423’ in Œuvres Complètes, Louis Lafuma, ed. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1952 (...)

21Hence the narrator interprets his marginal ‘dancing sketches’ primarily in relation to those technical data: ‘[T]he more thorough [. . .] my scientific work became, they [the sketches] [. . .] seemed all the more to stand in the light of a buried sun that possessed a spatial reason deeper than all apparent unreason’ (86). This reworks Pascal’s oft-cited aphorism: ‘The heart has its reasons of which the reason knows nothing.’19 Terrified by what his own scientific observations had revealed to him—the infinitude and silence of astronomical space—Pascal, although contemporary with Spinoza, compounded Cartesian dualism by seeking a refuge for his Christian faith in the heart. Such appeal to emotional instead of intellectual reason is an essentially Romantic reaction and Harris makes no such distinction between head and heart. Both alike are functions of complex interactions of cause and effect ultimately derived from the consequences of men’s actions in physical space.

  • 20 Sartre, Jean-Paul. ‘Preface’ to Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. London: Penguin Books, 19 (...)

22Science studies Nature’s phenomena in terms either of their scale, that is, measures of size and quantity, or their vectors, that is, agencies of force, velocity and direction that carry change. Since Harris spent the first fifteen years of his adult life understanding the natural phenomena of the Guyanas by these means, it requires no great leap of imagination to transfer vectors of force, velocity and direction to economics, politics and psychology. One merely translates between one language of measurement and another. The title of the last novel in the Guyana Quartet, The Secret Ladder (1963), alludes to just that. Whatever the scale of the phenomena, whatever the ladder of measurement, the same principles of physics will apply, whether Newtonian, Einsteinian or quantum. And the scientist or artist is, especially in quantum physics, himself subject to these, for what moves the writer’s hand and imagination is ‘the muse of space’ (64). This is more evidently the case in the Guyanas than in London, hence the priority of Genesis of the Clowns over Da Silva da Silva’s Cultivated Wilderness, but the same principles obtain in both locations. It is only that, as Sartre wrote in his ’Preface’ to The Wretched of the Earth: ‘In the colonies the truth stood naked, but the citizens of the mother country preferred it with clothes on’.20

23We have seen that the writer found his hand impelled to doodle marginalia beside his scientific observations and that this was an involuntary response to a violence in the first instance natural—the storm, and then the narrator’s natural alarm is diverted into a social-psychological one—Hope’s gun, which the narrator attempts to dismiss as only an illusion. Similarly in Da Silva, the plane crash that opens the book is a violent event, which turns out to be ‘only’ a recurrent dream, during which he has been pummelling his wife beside him in bed. She shakes him awake: ‘You hit me quite hard’, said Jen indignantly. ‘You were flying in your sleep, Da Silva’. (4) Like the narrator of Genesis in his hammock, we come down with a bump from the kind of event reported as tragedy in the news media to the comedy of the marital bed, but again this does not mean that the violence is merely an illusion; rather, because the violence is on a larger scale it is all the more deeply suppressed. Hence the sense of the uncanny writ large in the Guyanese landscapes of Genesis makes its way to the surface in more elusive and nuanced ways in the cultivated wilderness and sociology of Da Silva’s London.

  • 21 Niblett, Michael. ‘Strange Correspondences: Late Capitalism and Late Style in the Work of Wilson H (...)

24The social surface of this novel could not be more mundane. The time-scheme is set by the Monday to Friday, 9.0 to 5.0 pattern of life and work normal in the economy of modern cities, with the slight variation that it is the wife who goes out to work while the husband, because he is an artist, stays at home. During the afternoon he is interrupted when his wife rings to say she’ll be back earlier than usual, so, since the winter light is waning, he decides to stop work and meet her at her usual Tube station, which he does, and they go home. That’s all: the action of the novel is completely banal, a humdrum daily routine. But this surface is deceptive. In D’Aguiar’s words already quoted, there is a ‘complex though submerged reality’ beneath. Michael Niblett, in a powerful commentary on Harris’s last novel, describes the surface appearances themselves as the ‘normalized structures of violence and oppression characteristic of modern (capitalist) civilization’.21 This aspect of the surface is revealed by the interruptions, for the wife’s phone call is not the only one. The novel is in fact largely composed of interruptions in the form of the paintings, the doodles, and they are memories of Guyana.

25Da Silva spends the day organising his paintings for an exhibition, a retrospective, so they are the marginalia, the observations and dancing sketches of his life. Hence, as he arranges them, each brings some scene, episode or person from the past in Guyana back into the present in London; or rather, he is taken back to the occasions of painting them, with the attendant train of mental and physical incidents. This makes it impossible for the reader following the narrative to preserve clear distinctions between past and present, for time is arrested in the simultaneity of space. The same strategy of materialising time in specific locations was deployed in Genesis of the Clowns, with, as we have seen, the same disorienting effect on the reader.

26After the recurring dream, the first interruption is when ‘The front door pealed it seemed in the middle of his painting as he brooded on past and future’ (8-9). Reluctantly going to answer, he is (or was, for it is a painting which has prompted a memory of a past event now being re-lived) surprised to find a stranger at the door, a black man, and he then remembers (a remembering within a remembering) that he had been advertising for a black model. While standing on the threshold in conversation, inwardly musing at his forgetfulness, his body registers its own awareness of what is happening in the neighbouring space:

Faint thuds and tremors arose from an underground train perhaps as it ran from Holland Park to Shepherd’s Bush. Then there was silence. But sounds soon arose from another quarter like a ghost swishing a racket. There was an underground stream somewhere hereabouts, a tributary perhaps to a buried river called Counter Creek. He had seen it on an old map. (11)

27Again the uncanny, again arising from rivers, which, though buried, can still make themselves heard, even in London, like the sounds faintly rising from a game of tennis in the court behind the house. The forces that make their way to the surface are again filtered through the distorting medium of the social situation. I have noted the significance of the location of Holland Villas Road within the hierarchical human geography of London and that hierarchy can be extended historically. ‘Holland’ links the area to the colonial history of the Guyanas, as does the figure on the threshold who has turned up in answer to a forgotten commission, for he announces his name as Cuffey, the leader of the Berbice Rebellion against Dutch colonists in 1763. Can this be a revenant? Or has he perhaps strayed to Holland Park Villas from the Notting Hill Carnival? His name is a corruption of the Akan ‘Kofi’, so London is linked, via the Guyanas, to Africa. The humdrum routine of modern city life is imbricated in the violence of slavery and rebellion. Moreover, this Cuffey’s first name is Legba, so the unexpected figure on the threshold is an avatar of the universal Messenger and Trickster figure of crossroads and margins, a joker whose sense of comedy is, like nature’s, indifferent to the violence of any consequences.

28Later, in another painting, set in another season of the year, Da Silva and his wife picnic in Holland Park. In the sunshine, as he ‘half-idly, half-hypnotically, studied her features and the lines of her body as she lay beside him’ (54) sexual attraction balances ambiguously with an artist’s assessment of the aesthetic potential of a model. Then: ‘There was the roar of an aeroplane [. . .] that shook the painted ground like the passage of a public bomb from another age, another war, or a private bullet, a private war, in space, that had never ceased’ (57). The tremor in the ground now comes from the air above; the recurrent dream during which he attacked his wife is echoed in broad daylight by some plane on its descent towards Heathrow. A moment later they hear a police siren and, going to investigate, discover that Cuffey, his model, has been shot.

  • 22 Gooding, Mel. Frank Bowling. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2011; 115.

29Rather as Frank Bowling paints the Thames near which he lives, but paints it in the light that first inspired his hand to paint the Essequibo, Mazaruni and Demerara rivers where he grew up, so Harris brings the insights he developed as a hydrographic surveyor on those same rivers to rendering life in London.22 There is a change of scale, but not of the vectors of force, velocity and direction. These in fact increase. There is continuity of violence between the plane crash and Da Silva’s unconscious attack on Jen, the wife he loves with all his heart, or all of his heart for which he is consciously responsible. We have seen that Genesis can be read as a confessional exercise of the narrator’s and writer’s implication in development economics; there are also numerous glancing asides to sexual cupidity. In Da Silva it is sexual desire that comes more under scrutiny and the parallels in economics take second place, but there is nonetheless a ‘Painted Conversation with a Daemon of Forces’, a mercenary temptation scene as the narrator prepares his paintings for exhibition and sale (42-5).

30In comparing the narrator’s marginalia to the recordings of a scientific instrument I suggested that the latter writes space into time. In Harris’s most daring exploration of space, that action is reversed: time, in the form of events, writes itself into space. In the Albuoystown district of Georgetown, so the anonymous writer of the letter from Guyana tells the narrator, Hope surprised a man in bed with his ward, Lucille, and shot the man before then shooting himself. This happened in a lodging house on the site of La Pénitence, ‘the relic of a haunted shell in which a jealous eighteenth-century landowner shot his wife’ (145). The writer of the letter comments:

It seems that a particular day or a particular year or a particular decade is so strangely ‘imprinted on earth’ that other persons, in other times, pick it up perhaps in an involuntary thread, an involuntary garment, that sticks to their skins until it is written into the very fabric of the unconsciousness. (145)

31Were space as such to be absolute fate, an inescapable shirt of Nessus, that would indeed be truly terrifying, but La Pénitence and Holland Park are space that has been changed by the actions of men into particular places in time. That men can invest places with such powers is itself an uncanny idea, but at least leaves some room for free will.

  • 23 McWatt, Mark. The Journey to Le Repentir. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2009. McWatt’s own grandmother (...)

32In the case of London, the forces driving events are both more extreme and more occluded than in the Guyanas, but before turning to their embodiment in Holland Park, the anonymous letter-writer’s account must be corrected. When he says that Hope shot himself where an eighteenth-century landowner shot his wife he refers to a real historical incident, but misreports it. What happened was that a Frenchman, Pierre Louis de Saffon, shot his brother, not his wife, and fled to Guyana, where he indeed became a successful plantation owner, but, consumed by life-long remorse, named his adjacent plantations La Pénitence and Le Repentir. The former, built over, is now the district of Albuoystown, the latter is Georgetown’s main cemetery. The story is well known in Guyana and inspired a fine book of poems by Mark McWatt.23

33The suppression of the correct version of history is significant, for the name of the man Hope surprised in bed is, even more surprisingly, Frank Wellington, the name of the narrator in London. Hope has been the narrator’s shadow brother in Guyana all along, a repressed, reciprocal relation, but the implicit political violence glimpsed in the storm scene has been diverted into a crime of passion and instead of resorting to revolution Hope has turned the gun on himself. The coincidence of names is like a bad joke, the kind we dub, interestingly, ‘pathetic’, and it is deliberately so, for we are even reminded of an earlier bad joke when Hope comes to the narrator’s rescue in the storm wearing Wellington boots over his pyjamas. But then, this novel is about the genesis of clowns, which involves the uncomfortable exercise of standing in another’s shoes.

  • 24 Kelly, Linda. Holland House. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013, passim.

34In London, the ground that shakes as the aircraft passes overhead is indeed haunted by history. The second owner of Holland House was beheaded in the English Civil War. A statue in the Park commemorates a later Lord Holland, liberal Whig statesman and admirer of Napoleon, married to a celebrated society hostess, heiress of a sugar estate in Jamaica.24 Cuffey is shot dead at the foot of this statue and Holland House itself was destroyed in the Blitz, only the gardens surviving—a cultivated wilderness. The human violence buried in the ground of London far exceeds anything in Guyana, where it is matched only by natural forces.

  • 25 In a fierce return of the socially repressed, on the night of 14 June 2017 many immigrants died in (...)

35However, even in London, space is not irretrievably traumatised into place. In the section of the novel sub-titled ‘The Exhibition’, Da Silva decides to paint a slum being demolished in North Kensington.25 He then finds himself near the tent-like building where his paintings will be shown, the Commonwealth Institute, which is entered over a pond ‘across a ramp like the handle of a gigantic spanner’ (67). Like Frank Wellington observing the flags move apparently of their own accord against the current of the Abary, Da Silva imagines ‘a procession of newborn paintings,’ concealing the porters carrying them, spontaneously ‘making their way’ into the Institute (67). He ascends to the Caribbean deck, where ‘electric islands revolve around him like enormous postage stamps’ (72), displaying the histories and products of the various countries. When he looks down he sees below him ‘schoolchildren from Holland Park comprehensive school move along Hercules’ spanner that seemingly moves in its turn by hydroelectric genesis as well as continents around them’ (72). The whole building seems to rotate, again verging on an uncanny suspension between vertigo and the realisation of something suppressed. He becomes aware of whole cultures and continents as ‘wheels within wheels’ and of ‘revolutions turning in opposite and contrary directions’ (87). Again like Frank Wellington, but this time beside another river of the Guyanas, the Mazaruni, and when looking across at Kyk-over-al—abandoned shell of imperial wars between Dutch, Portuguese and British: in this perspective of great rivers ‘one is stilled within a divine comedy of the elements and drawn face to face with terrifying otherness—something a-human if not a-moral’ (126). The “morality” is in the inevitability of the reciprocity of natural laws; so is the terror, and also the comedy:

The comedy of the sun was the tragedy of polarised cultures on the brink of an awareness of themselves as satellite never sovereign. It was a huge Copernican step, an unimaginable step, for economic man, for primitive man, for economic child, primitive child, to take (117).

  • 26 For Kepler in the gnostic tradition related to Harris see Michael Mitchell, Hidden Mutualities. Fa (...)

36Copernicus’s hypothesis—that the earth was spinning through space—improbably contradicted common sense. Newton’s formulation of the laws governing the spinning was based on a similarly improbable hypothesis of some uncannily invisible force acting at a distance—gravity.26 It followed from this new science that the place from which an observation is made does not privilege that place with centrality; the earth is not the centre of its own system. Nor is man. But that radical change of perspective has yet to be applied by earth’s human inhabitants to themselves in relation to its other animal, vegetable and mineral inhabitants ‘in the culture of seas and rivers’ (87).

37All Harris’s novels are equipped with epigraphs, but this the only one where the epigraph, from Stuart Hampshire’s already cited essay on Spinoza, is referred to in the text itself. Hampshire’s views on human nature were forged in the furnace of its most extreme history. During the Second World War, he served in Intelligence and interrogated Kaltenbrunner, Heydrich’s successor as head of the Gestapo and SS in preparation for his trial at Nuremberg. Later, shocked by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he helped found Index on Censorship. Hampshire argues that, despite Copernicus’s revolutionary decentring of the earth, man is still ‘out of scale with the natural order of which he is a part: this is the primitive egotism and anthropocentrism from which the theory of knowledge and the physical sciences will together liberate us’ (Hampshire 1972: 222). Alternatively, the Anthropocene era will be brought to an end by the over-success of the species from which it takes its name and be recorded only as another layer in the stratigraphy of the planet.

38The hand of the writer, responding to the scale of the landscape of the Guyanas, and mapping its vectors among the inhabitants there and in London, re-writes man in a scientific fiction which anticipates Stuart Hampshire’s hoped-for liberation.

Bibliographie

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Burns, Lorna. ‘Uncovering the Marvellous: Surrealism and the Writings of Wilson Harris’. The Journal of Postcolonial Writing 47 (2011): 52–64.

Cribb, T.J. ‘T.W. Harris, Sworn Surveyor’. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature XXIX (1993): 33–46.

Cribb, T.J. ‘Place and Time: The Two Anchors’ in The Cross-Cultural Legacy. Gordon Collier, Geoffrey V. Davis, Marc Delrez, Bénédicte Ledent, eds. Leiden / Boston: Brill Rodopi, 2017; 49–65.

D’Aguiar, Fred. ‘Wilson Harris: the Writer as Surveyor’ in Another Life/Une Autre vie. Mélanie Joseph-Vilain and Judith Misrahi-Barak, eds. Series PoCoPages, Coll. ‘Horizons anglophones’. Montpellier: Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2012; 29–44.

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Glissant, Edouard. Le Discours antillais. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1981.

Gooding, Mel. Frank Bowling. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2011.

Gooding, Mel. ‘Bowling at Spritmuseum: Landscapes of the Spirit’ in Traingone. Vera Celander, ed. Stockholm: Stiftelsen Vin & Sprithistorika Museet, 2014: 33–39.

Hampshire, Stuart. ‘A Kind of Materialism’ in Freedom of Mind and Other Essays. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972; 210–231.

Harris, Wilson. Da Silva da Silva’s Cultivated Wilderness and Genesis of the Clowns. London: Faber and Faber, 1977.

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Harris, Wilson. The Womb of Space. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Harris, Wilson. The Radical Imagination. Alan Riach and Mark Williams, eds. Liége: L3 Liège Language and Literature, 1992.

Harris, Wilson, ‘Review’. Wasafiri, 12 (1997): 96–98.

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Maes-Jelinek, Hena. The Labyrinth of Universality. Amsterdam / New York: Rodopi, 2006.

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McWatt, Mark. The Journey to Le Repentir. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2009.

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Mitchell, Michael. Hidden Mutualities. Faustian Themes from Gnostic Origins to the Postcolonial. Amsterdam / New York: Rodopi, 2006.

Niblett, Michael. ‘Strange Correspondences: Late Capitalism and Late Style in the Work of Wilson Harris and John Berger’. Ariel 47.1-2 (2016): 163–191.

Pascal, Blaise. ‘Pensées 423, 201’ in Œuvres Complètes, Louis Lafuma, ed. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1952.

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Notes

1 Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016; 54.

2 Wallace, Alfred Russel. ‘On the Monkeys of the Amazon’. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1852): 107–110.

3 Harris, Wilson.’The Native Phenomenon’ in Explorations, Hena Maes-Jelinek, ed. Mundelstrup, Denmark: Dangaroo Press, 1981: 49–56; 54.

4 In Another Life, Mélanie Joseph-Vilain, and Judith Misrahi-Barak, eds. Series PoCoPages, Coll. ‘Horizons anglophones’. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2012; 29–44.

5 Glissant, Edouard. Le Discours antillais. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1981; 255.

6 Cribb, T.J. ‘T.W. Harris, Sworn Surveyor’. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature xxix (1993): 33–46.

7 Harris, Wilson. ‘A Talk on the Subjective Imagination’, in Explorations, Maes-Jelinek, Hena, ed. Mundelstrup, Denmark: Dangaroo Press, 1981; 57–67.

8 Mellor, Hugh. Real Time. Cambridge University Press, 1981.

9 Cribb, T.J. ‘Place and Time: The Two Anchors’ in The Cross-Cultural Legacy. Gordon Collier, Geoffrey V. Davis, Marc Delrez, Bénédicte Ledent, eds. Leiden/Boston: Brill Rodopi, 2017; 49–65.

10 Harris, Wilson. Da Silva da Silva’s Cultivated Wilderness and Genesis of the Clowns. London: Faber and Faber, 1977. Page references hereafter in text.

11 Maes-Jelinek, Hena. The Labyrinth of Universality. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2006; 253, n.29.

12 Harris, Wilson. The Radical Imagination. Alan Riach and Mark Williams, eds. Liège: L3 Liège Language and Literature, 1992; 72.

13 Gooding, Mel. ‘Bowling at Spritmuseum: Landscapes of the Spirit’ in Frank Bowling Traingone. Vera Celander, ed. Stockholm: Stiftelsen Vin & Sprithistoriska Museet, 2014; 33–39.

14 Harris, Wilson, ‘Review’. Wasafiri 12 (1997): 96-98. Lorna Burns calls attention to this review in ‘Uncovering the Marvellous: Surrealism and the Writings of Wilson Harris’ in The Journal of Postcolonial Writing 47 (2011): 52–64.

15 Hampshire, Stuart. ‘A Kind of Materialism’. Freedom of Mind and Other Essays. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972: 210-31; 214, 211.

16 Mercer, Kobena. ‘Wilfredo Lam’s Afro-Atlantic Routes’ in Wilfredo Lam, Catherine David, ed. London: Tate Publishing, 2016: 23–35; 28.

17 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abary River. Accessed on October 10, 2016.

18 Hesse, Mary. Forces and Fields. The Concept of Action at a Distance in the History of Physics. London: Nelson, 1962; New York: Dover, 2005.

19 Pascal, Blaise. ‘Pensée 423’ in Œuvres Complètes, Louis Lafuma, ed. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1952; 552.

20 Sartre, Jean-Paul. ‘Preface’ to Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. London: Penguin Books, 1967; 7. Cf Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. New York: International Publishers, 1964: ‘Everything that appears in the worker as an activity of alienation, of estrangement, appears in the non-worker as a state’; 119.

21 Niblett, Michael. ‘Strange Correspondences: Late Capitalism and Late Style in the Work of Wilson Harris and John Berger’. Ariel (October 2016): 163–191; 165. The banal is also underwritten by myth; Orpheus recovers his Eurydice from the Underground.

22 Gooding, Mel. Frank Bowling. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2011; 115.

23 McWatt, Mark. The Journey to Le Repentir. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2009. McWatt’s own grandmother was a beneficiary of a fund for orphans De Saffon left as further atonement for his crime.

24 Kelly, Linda. Holland House. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013, passim.

25 In a fierce return of the socially repressed, on the night of 14 June 2017 many immigrants died in the fire in the Grenfell tower-block of flats, built 1972-74 on a clearance site in just that liminal area between the rich West and poor North Kensington where Da Silva sets up his easel and Harris his novel.

26 For Kepler in the gnostic tradition related to Harris see Michael Mitchell, Hidden Mutualities. Faustian Themes from Gnostic Origins to the Postcolonial. Amsterdam / New York: Rodopi, 2006; 105-128.

Auteur

Tim Cribb is a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, where until retirement he was Director of Studies in English and Tutor for Advanced Students. In the Faculty of English he launched the third-year option in Commonwealth, now Postcolonial, Literatures in English. He has been a visiting lecturer at the Universities of Ife and Kwara State University in Nigeria. His main areas of research are Shakespeare, Dickens, and Caribbean literature. He acts as Senior Member for Cambridge University Marlowe Dramatic Society.

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