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Reading Wilson Harris’s “History, Fable and Myth”

Reading Wilson Harris’s “History, Fable and Myth” (1970) as a “Foundational Text” in Caribbean Literature and Cultural Studies

by Barbara J. Webb, English, Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center 

At an international conference organized in 2001 by Hena Maes-Jelinek in honor of Wilson Harris’s 80th birthday and over 50 years of creative writing, Gordon Rohlehr referred to Harris as “the most admired unread writer of the Caribbean.”  Rohlehr was undoubtedly alluding to the difficulty of Harris’s densely metaphorical, highly abstract writing.  It is also striking that Harris is barely present in Alison Donell and Sarah Lawson Welsh’s Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature.  In their section on “Caribbean Criticism: Some Seminal Moments” (in the introduction to the period 1966-1979) they describe Harris’s Tradition, The Writer and Society (1967) as “an important and interesting intervention” but they maintain that his “writing, both fictional and critical… has not been easily accommodated within Caribbean literary traditions or critical paradigms and is often categorized as being more akin to the ‘magic realism’ of South American writing” (291).  Andrew Bundy, editor of the Selected Essays (1999) goes so far as to write Harris “out of the Caribbean.” He maintains that “Harris’s study of the fabric of the imagination sets his writing apart from the concerns of West Indian Caribbean writers” (7). Elsewhere Bundy rejects the idea of aligning Harris with certain issues of race, geographic and historical boundaries and situates him among the Central and South American writers that came to prominence in the 1960s. Wilson Harris does draw on a multitude of literary and cultural traditions and like the main character in his novel Black Marsden (1972) it seems that “everything is grist for his mill” (37).  Accordingly his numerous books and essays have been read as modernist/surrealist, postmodern/poststructuralist and of course postcolonialist where he is often given pride of place because of his engagement with questions origins, authenticity, subjectivity, universality and historiography.

In my own work on Harris, I have attempted to situate his writing—both fiction and theoretical—in relation to Alejo Carpentier and Edouard Glissant from a regional Caribbean and New World/ literature of the Americas perspective. Today’s reading “History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas” (1970) was especially important in my investigation of the literary and cultural projects of these three writers, for whom the myths, legends and folktales of theCaribbeanwere a source of creativity and renewal.

“History, Fable and Myth” was originally a three-part lecture series that Harris gave at the National History and Arts Council in Georgetown, Guyana(1970).  The essay we are reading today is the first part; the other two “The Amerindian Legacy” and “Continuity and Discontinuity” are presented in separate chapters in Bundy’s Selected Essays.  This first section of the lecture/essay deals specifically with West Indian historiography and the folk traditions limbo and vodun.  In his opening remarks, Harris argues against what he considers “conventional” approaches to Caribbean history as exemplified by the pro-slavery, colonial apologist James Anthony Froude as well as the anti-slavery, anti-colonialist John Jacob Thomas.  For Harris both Froude and Thomas were limited by 19th century conventions of historical understanding that impeded their ability to see beyond the “historical stasis” of a victor/victim dichotomy and the idea of theCaribbean of a cultural “wasteland” or void.  He draws a similar parallel about the “dead-end of history” in imperialist and anti-imperialist discourse.

Instead Harris proposes a philosophy of history and poetics of the novel that “reads back through the shock of place and time for omens of capacity that were latent, unrealized, within the clash of cultures and movements of peoples into the South Americas and West Indies” (Bundy, Selected Essays 171).  He calls for an approach to history and the novel that draws on the folk traditions, fables, myth and legends of theCaribbean, which he considers “variables of the arts of the imagination.”   For Harris,Caribbean folk traditions such as limbo and vodun are manifestations of creativity as well as intuitive strategies for dealing with historical crises or traumas.

Harris notes that the limbo dance of West Indian carnival celebrations is said to have originated on the crowded slave ships of the Middle Passage. Citing the connection between the limbo dancer’s spider-like transformation and the Caribbean Anancy fables in Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s “Islands,” Harris interprets the emergence of limbo as the slaves’ subconscious means of “bridging the gap between an outer frame and an inner dislocation”; that is, the symbolic transcendence of the condition of confinement in the transition from the African past to a new world in the Americas.  According to Harris, the limbo dance represents “a profound art of compensation which seeks to re-play a dismemberment of tribes…and to invoke at the same time a curious psychic re-assembly of the parts of the dead god or gods. And that re-assembly …issued from a state of cramp to articulate a new growth.”  Haitian vodun, with its syncretic fusions of African and European religious practices, is similar to the limbo phenomenon in that it “breaks the tribal monolith of the past and re-assembles an inter-tribal or cross-cultural community of families” (Harris, “History” 159, 162, 164).

As cultural model of the possibility of profound psychic transformation, Harris suggests limbo and vodun should serve as new paradigms forCaribbeanhistory and fiction.  Accordingly Harris’s novels are fables of rebirth that point toward “the dawn of new consciousness” in the aftermath of historical conflict or trauma.  In his fiction, the threshold of consciousness is always immanent; his novels offer an open-ended vision of possibility but the resolution of inner and outer conflict remains highly problematic.  Since Harris rejects the “material vision of time,” individual and collective freedom would seem to be possible only in the realm of inner consciousness and the arts of the imagination.

Discussion questions:

1. A number of critics have suggested that Harris’s writings in the 1960s and 70s anticipated literary and theoretical trends that would become dominant in the 1980s and 90s.  How significant in this regard is Harris’s past and more recent work for the study ofCaribbeanliterature and culture?

2.  How useful are his ideas for current interdisciplinary approaches to history and culture?

3.  For all his emphasis on the creative capacity of the “imagination” and “bridging chasms” of difference, what are the implications of his ideas for the possibility of historical or human agency?  Is this only possible in the mind of the individual and art?

4.  His work is intended to and does “provoke consciousness,” but where does (as he says citing Merleau-Ponty) “appropriating a de facto situation by endowing it with a figurative meaning beyond the real” lead us?