Ghost world

By Brendan de Caires

The Ghost of Memory, by Wilson Harris
Faber and Faber, ISBN 0–571–23240–X, 100 pp

Wilson Harris’s final novel starts like his first, with a violent death — a South American man is mistaken for a terrorist and shot — then it follows a familiar pattern of digression (often enigmatic) and analysis (often visionary) to lead you to a series of overwhelming questions — What is love? What is art? — which invite you to consider the nightmare of history. None of this is easy on the nerves. You constantly feel like starting over, certain that you have missed an important clue which could unravel the mystery. Then it dawns on you that you may have understood the message perfectly. Perhaps you were meant to come up short. If the limits of your language are the limits of your world, then Harris is showing you the New World in an appropriately new style. This can’t be done simply.

After being shot, the South American falls from a great height “across centuries and generations,” back to the beginning of his age. He finds himself within a painting, in an art gallery in a big city. Intrigued, he steps out of the canvas and starts to argue with a visitor to the gallery, one Christopher Columbus, over the meanings of the paintings. They agree on very little. Columbus is annoyed to hear that his interpretations lack depth. “Myth and nonsense,” he snorts when told that Giacometti’s Standing Woman resembles an Arawak mother-figure. How could the work of “an important twentieth century sculptor” be related to a “primitive relic”? The ghost replies: “I never said that he was influenced . . . But I felt that there was a curious resemblance of line. That is all. A curious resemblance that tells us of distances we have travelled in one shape or another to reach where we are.”

Swap Giacometti’s spindly female with the fleshier femmes of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and the ghost seems to be making common cause with Chinua Achebe, who famously argued, in a 1977 essay titled “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, that Conrad’s images of European deterioration in Heart of Darkness overlook the fact that a Fang sculpture “made by other savages living just north of Conrad’s River Congo” inspired “the beginning of cubism and the infusion of new life into European art, which had run completely out of strength.” If you have read Harris’s polite dissent from Achebe’s denunciation of Conrad (“The Frontier on Which Heart of Darkness Stands”, 1981), then you will also notice that the ghost doesn’t blame Columbus for being partial to his traditions, that he accepts that a culture’s limits are invisible to those most bound by them. Columbus resists the comparison to a “primitive” relic, because to do otherwise would undermine the very thing that allows him to make such confident judgements.

These are just some of the thoughts which I believe that repetition of “curious resemblance” ought to evoke. Without them, the exchange is still interesting, but much less convincing; you feel as though too large a claim has been made on quite slender evidence. In other words, if you have grappled with Harris before, the ghost will be a familiar corrective to the Columbuses of this world, but if this is your first encounter with the oeuvre, too many pages may read like myth and nonsense, and little else.

Wilson Harris

Wilson Harris. Photograph courtesy Faber

Harris is a distinguished postcolonial critic, and it is hard to read his fiction without relating it to the groundbreaking essays and lectures he has produced over the years. His criticism has often intuited the gist of new critical movements long before they became fashionable. He condemned “imperialist realism” before Edward Said, worked out a sort of deconstruction before Jacques Derrida, and even seems to have practised New Historicism before Stephen Greenblatt. At his best, he is masterly at dismantling pretensions to absolute truth — like Europe’s record of its colonial expansion — and exposing cultural certainties as partial fictions, strands in a much grander tapestry than we have usually been taught. He has spent an entire literary life trying to push his readers beyond received wisdom, to reveal patterns which arise out of the interplay of “adversarial contexts” — like the clash of cultures in Conrad’s work — either by re-writing canonical texts so that they include forgotten voices (Palace of the Peacock is, to some extent, a revised Heart of Darkness; the Carnival Trilogy collects New World versions of the Divine Comedy, Faust, and the Odyssey), or by dwelling on the “gaps and holes” of recorded history and trying to re-imagine them with “humanity’s eclipsed longings, eclipsed ambitions, eclipsed hopes” restored. This has resulted in four decades of very challenging fiction, the sort that wants to create, in the words of the leading Harris scholar Hena Maes-Jelinek, “‘re-visionary’ or ‘transfigurative’ bridges across chasms to bring to light ‘involuntary associations’ between closed worlds of race and culture.”

In less daunting terms, Harris has tried to widen the scope of the Caribbean imagination, to show how African or pre-Columbian art and mythology can hold as much significance for us as our much better known cultural legacies from Europe. But cultures do not connect schematically. You must be prepared to set aside multi-culturality (an “umbrella of tolerance over many different cultures”) for “cross-culturality” — an altogether harder undertaking, which begins with the conviction that “cultures are partial in themselves.” And so Harris has let his critical instincts follow wherever “curious resemblances” have led him, often with remarkable results. Building on the work of the anthropologist Walter Roth, for example, Harris teased out the implications of a “reverse transubstantiation” as practised by Carib warriors: a ritual in which the cannibalised bodies of the Spanish conquistadors were turned into bone flutes. For Harris, these flutes were a mutual space of the living and the dead, a paradoxical amalgam of destruction and creation. The affinities to, and fascinating differences from, the Christianity that supposedly “civilised” these warriors is obvious, once you have made the connection.

Unsurprisingly, cross-cultural fiction is not for the faint-hearted. Characters in a Harris novel slip between the past and the present with discomforting ease; they also tend to become their ancestors, or twins, or historical analogues. This blurring of the lines between realism and dream, conscious and unconscious, allows the forgotten voices of history to have their say, in the best postcolonial fashion. But these “meta-fictional” games take their toll on all but the most determined readers. As a result, Harris has had little influence on a general audience. He is the great unread novelist of the Caribbean, a transfigurative bridge too far inside his philosophical New World territory for most of us to cross. For, whatever its damnable qualities, the realism of the traditional novel is a hard habit to break.

The Ghost of Memory reads like a summing up. Because it is so short, it is tempting to read every gesture symbolically. When the ghost emerges from the painting, does he shake off what Harris has referred to as a “static habit” — the acceptance of a paradigm like the Newtonian universe — to engage with his surroundings dynamically? To wander in that “obscure dimension of consciousness” in which Einstein found relativity? When Tiresias appears, should we consult Sophocles, or look to the seer who has “foresuffered all” in Eliot’s poem? If the latter, should we take heed of the infamous note to The Waste Land which said that “What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem”? As with much of Harris’s work, it is impossible to say exactly what he means. But a few tentative guesses may be offered.

As I read it, this novel revisits most of Harris’s major themes. The gallery is a collection of cultural artefacts which are lifeless and meaningless without dialogue. Columbus and the ghost create the meanings of the exhibition, particularly when they fight over Art in the City, the painting from which the terrorist has stepped. The ghost wants to stage a play based on this painting, but Columbus fears that the play is “heretical,” and he tries to stop the performance. When he realises that he cannot, he pulls out a knife and cuts the canvas to ribbons. This is another instance of murderous certainties — like the fatal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes after the London Underground bombings, another South American mistaken for a terrorist — which turn out to be wrong. These certainties are dangerous because they assume that a single culture can provide all the answers, or meanings, to the varieties of human experience. Staging a play would allow these static meanings to evolve, to assume the life they ought to have, but this would weaken the authority of the master narrative. Better to destroy the signifier than let that happen.

Two men named George and Andy, who are not given any characteristics worth remembering, also visit the gallery and discuss what the images mean. At times the ghost, functioning like other Harrisian Tricksters, plants ideas in George’s unconscious. At one point, they consider the spectacle of a modern boxing match and wonder whether it, too, retains primitive traits. Are the crowds watching “one man striking, punching another with gloved fists like smooth knives. One [the] champion-priest, the other the victim”? Again, the parallel stirs the ghost’s curiosity: “it’s an obscure, incomplete religion as far as the crowds are concerned, but if you said so to them, you would be treated like a lunatic, George. We all suffer from incomplete religions — some claim to be absolute and are in the open and do not have to hide in sports stadiums.” In the age of “shock and awe,” this needs no gloss, but Harris’s phrasing is very suggestive.

Elsewhere, this book, quite unapologetically, asks the reader to consider aspects of Plato, the meanings of Jason, Medea, and Prometheus, a remark by Charles Darwin, and, perhaps inevitably, quantum reality. But there are moments at which the master appears to acknowledge that some of this may be caviar to the general. In the middle of a disquisition on love and primitive religion, Tiresias concedes, “I speak as a dreamer. My dream may be awry and difficult to interpret. But this is the best I can do.” That seems fair enough.

On the very last page, after Columbus has been arrested, George and Andy look up at the sky as they leave the gallery. George notices a constellation and guesses that it may be the Wanderer:

It was a skeleton of lights. It may have been there a million and more years before Man had appeared on planet Earth. How could it be anything one now knew? One could clothe it with the garments of myth and legend but these were illusions, they were ruins in which one placed the origins of Art.

Any astronomer can tell you that a constellation is a cartographer’s illusion. To arrange a group of stars into a discernible pattern, you must flatten aeons of space-time and force light from living and dead stars into a single, arbitrary plane. When you do this you create “absent presences,” mix the real with the spectral, and perform a number of other useful simplifications. The results allow you to refer to what is out there very precisely, but you can only grasp the numinous qualities of the night when those missing dimensions are restored to the sky.

In some respects, history and art work the same way. Most of us think about the past as a constellation of human events, harmlessly inert and devoid of any texture. Wilson Harris, a surveyor who grew tired of maps, has spent decades rediscovering these hidden relations, urging us to consider the redemptive possibilities of a re-imagined past.

The Ghost of Memory is a strange and difficult book that will frustrate as many readers as it gratifies. Its dialogue is often stilted, its characters really just arguments with names attached, and its bizarre drifting storyline little more than a means to an end. But it is also, probably, the final work of a uniquely Caribbean master. Harris’s novels have always been difficult, but they have never been dull. This one is no exception. Anyone who has ever felt that they have experienced the Caribbean but missed the meaning would do well to wander thoughtfully among the shadows of our art and history, and to probe their meanings as Harris does here.


The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2007

Brendan de Caires was born and grew up in Guyana, but has also lived in the United Kingdom, Trinidad, Barbados, and Mexico, before moving to New York. He has worked as an editorial assistant, subeditor, and assistant editor for various publishers. He has also worked as a human rights advocate, English literature and ESL teacher, and written book reviews for Caribbean Beat, Kyk-Over-Al, and the Stabroek News.