Fred D’Aguiar contemplates the elasticity of time and space in the fiction of Wilson Harris
Wilson Harris told me a story in the late 1980s while we walked in a tree-lined street divided by a trench in Georgetown.
Harris said, in the quiet tone of meaningful confession, that when he was a schoolboy in the early 1930s a friend of his fell into this very trench we were now walking beside, and his friend climbed out wet and apologetic, feeling bad for making a fool of himself by his own clumsiness. Harris said he felt terrible, because it was he, in fact, who had nudged his friend into this trench, and though he regretted doing so the moment his friend tipped into the water, he could not do anything in time to save his friend from his tumble, nor was he able, back then, to confess to his friend that the fall was not an accident. The adolescent he was at that time just couldn’t bring himself to own up to what had actually happened. So his friend went on believing in his self-professed clumsiness, and the deliberate action instigated by Harris himself that resulted in the embarrassing tumble became entrenched in memory.
We walked on in silence for several yards. I looked hard at dry cracks in the mud-bed, and my eyes flicked from one crumbling mud-bank to the other. Perhaps the water table that fed it had sent the contents elsewhere, caused by some geological tilt away from the area, so that now, fifty years after his friend’s baptismal event, all I could see was a dry space.
I had no idea at the time why I said the three things that I then said to Harris, but they came to me right away. First, I suggested to Harris that he should push his friend, again, since this time, meaning right then and there, no harm would be done in what was now a dry place. Second, I speculated that he, Harris, might look at his friend, falling, back then, from the vantage point of the present, and somehow reach back in time and grab his friend’s arm, just in time to save him from getting soaked. And third, should both those methods fail to appeal, or the rescue not work out, somehow Harris could confess to his friend what he had done, again across time, the moment his friend climbed out of the trench. Of course, he might opt simply not to push his friend at all, by suppressing the awful adolescent impulse with the restraint of an adult sensibility, again exercised across time in this shared space.
Harris laughed and nodded in recognition of his own imaginative procedure in his fiction, as it was being dished back to him by one of his readers. So where did all that magic talk of bending time and stretching space and reversing history originate?
I’d spent the months before the trip to Guyana re-reading Harris’s fiction, essays, and poetry, and gleaning from them his theory about the elasticity of time and space, best articulated in his 1987 novel The Infinite Rehearsal. Harris’s idea of infinite rehearsal treats memories, images, and dreams as unfinished dramas ripe for contemplation. His theory bears some relation to the existentialist notion of perpetual return, but differs in the effect of the experience on the subject, who remains somewhat fixed in Nietzsche’s theory. For Harris, each return to a memory, image, or dream yields new insights, and each time the viewer or thinker participates in the recall or act of gazing — from a necessarily partial because particular viewpoint — that person changes a little. There is no possibility of easy closure. The artistic compulsion to look and keep looking at this rich source of self-knowledge creates the sense of a revisionary potential when it comes to apparently fixed realities. The process of writing becomes an interactive one. The imagination of the writer changes as a result of this deliberate act of exposure. There is the promise of a deepening sensibility. Ceaseless exploration of earlier discoveries leads to more complex accounts of them.
“There is always a pressure about time in Wilson Harris’s works, a feeling of urgency about a world presented as in an emergency, a culture too caught up in its own blind excesses to appreciate the dangers of its actions”
Something happens to time itself. Time switches from a linear narrative to a lyrical sense. Rather than seeing a past that is gone and out of reach, and the fact of a future always presenting itself, there is, instead, a defiance of the linear. The march forwards may be stalled. The backwards gaze proves not only useful but capable of altering what happened in that past. This idea of time as a continuous present — that is, no past, present, and future continuum, but somehow the past and the future in the present — appeared in Harris’s first novel, The Palace of the Peacock (1960), and continued as an imaginative procedure through twenty-five novels to his latest, The Ghost of Memory (2006).
But if time loops around on itself, if time can be stretched and torn in places, to open rehearsals of memory and provide imaginative spaces for the writer to stage these acts of retrieval of hidden facets of memory, it is worth looking at Harris’s view of what happens to place when geography is subjected to the same pressure of intuition, sensory perception, recall, and imagination.
When that adolescent friend of Harris fell into that functioning trench back in the early 1930s, he set up a traumatic memory in Harris, who was responsible for the event. If the memory was treated as over and done with, though memorialised, it would be in a storage room in the nervous system which occasionally spilled over into a nightmare or a momentary wash of guilty recall. But in Harris’s original mind the memory becomes an occasion for a return to the past — it presents a portal which pierces maps and transforms a landscape into a place with layers of memory as much as rock strata. All of which begs the question about how this way of looking at reality as perpetual drama came about in the first place.
Traditional biographical data about Harris tell us he was born in New Amsterdam in 1921, trained in Georgetown as a surveyor, and from the late 1930s took part in, then led, expeditions into the interior of Guyana, to survey rivers and the areas around them. Armed with theodolite, pen, and notepad, the rational surveyor encountered a dense rainforest interior which belied the measurements and readings of his rational instruments and sequentially trained mind. What he discovered on these trips forced him to search for a method to match his encounters with sudden rainfall juxtaposed with blinding sunshine, river depths of such marked difference in such close proximity that he doubted his instruments, local Amerindian tribes who historicised the place in purely mythical terms, and, ultimately, a landscape imbued with qualities of a powerful character and God or gods, able to mould perception and resist categorisation.
Harris’s language altered as a result. Landscape became instructive not simply in terms outlined by the Romantics, whose great legacy remains that landscape is a thing we can benefit from by knowing about, a cathedral of sorts for spiritual renewal. But for Harris that landscape enacts perception, governs it, steers it into new mental terrain. This transformative aspect of landscape was bound to alter Harris’s language, since the way he talked about place had to be part and parcel of his discoveries about the power of Guyana’s rainforest interior. When allied with time, this sensory reception of a place turned out to be a literary practice, a theory about fiction, an account of the intuitive imagination, and therefore a new type of fiction.
Inevitably, Harris’s art of fiction reaches across to other art forms to make the case for his view of time and place. The Ghost of Memory examines how a work of art shapes the life of someone who takes the time to really look at it. While synaesthesia might be the occasion for one sense perception to supply another with a language for interpreting the world, in the case of Harris, one art form instructs another about the world. Painting and fiction engage with the same things, but from different viewpoints. The fiction writer sees a painting and connects the figures depicted in it with history, myth, and current affairs. The arts, far from being abstract, appear to engage with society, admittedly by keeping the social and political at some necessary distance, and, with a degree of operational diffidence, that nevertheless suggests solutions to social problems.
There is always a pressure about time in Harris’s works, a feeling of urgency about a world presented as in an emergency, a culture too caught up in its own blind excesses to appreciate the dangers of its actions to life on the planet, and a planet used and abused to its breaking point. The one redeeming quality about this world is its predisposition towards other worlds by certain of its subjects, principally artists. Artists have access to a human antiquity preserved in the harmonious environmental practices of certain so-called primitive tribes and past civilisations. Harris argues that these good deeds have been discarded or largely ignored by arrogant modernity.
The painting with its multiple narratives and perspectives spread across the flat canvas becomes an interpretive field for repeated scrutiny, much like the novel invested in probing the relationship between image and the ideas embedded in it. One thing suggests another and another and another in a linked chain of meanings. Hence the child in The Mask of the Beggar who meets the poor man in the street and cannot shake the man’s desperate face from his mind morphs into that homeless man as a stand-in for an elder from another ruined civilisation. The child who witnesses that face becomes the artistic mind forced to resolve what the encounter might mean for his adult life and for the times he lives in. If the Beggar of the novel is Odysseus, returned in disguise to his kingdom and unrecognised by his countrymen, then the needs of the poor in a rich society surely should be a call on the conscience of the privileged to do something about the inequitable distribution of scarce resources. It signals, as well, how the past can be a stranger to the present just when the present needs to know that it is connected to the past.
The adolescent who fell in the trench all those years ago and climbed out wet and sorry for the embarrassment planted himself in Harris’s memory. In the intervening fifty years, that incident languished with Harris until I walked with him along the same patch of ground. I cannot argue for past incarnations in present-day bodies, nor for the odd magic of synchronicity of time and events, but I may have spoken on behalf of that boy who fell. I took his place in a forum welcomed by Harris, the man who, back then when he was young and impetuous and mischievously playful, pushed that boy into the trench. As the young man that boy may have become, I walked that same road that was not the same road, in a different time that was the same time, and enabled a rehearsal of the rudiments of that past event with the advantage of hindsight, foresight, insight, intuition, and whatever else we wish to call the creative act of imagination invested in myth, recall, sensory stimulus, and place. It occurs to me that I reacted to Harris’s admission to me exactly as he would have wanted someone who read his work to react: as a demonstration of my understanding of his imaginative procedure as Guyana’s most original and compelling writer.
In 1990, Harris published a novel titled The Four Banks of the River of Space in which figures from Amerindian myth pop into the contemporary world and challenge the novelist who is susceptible to these intrusions between myth and history, and where a continuum forms between landscapes imagined and real. Harris’s quadrupled banks of space — analogously presented as a river, a living stream of thought and phenomenon — gesture to quantum mechanics, where vast geographical polarities exist in instantaneous parallels. This makes me imagine the trench with two young men running along its dry, crenellated bed. One is Wilson, the other is that boy, and they are looking at two older men. One is Wilson, the other is me, as we walk along the bank, and the water that was there in the trench is suspended below us, above us in cloud, and all around us as moisture. I am looking at all this now in Virginia, and Wilson Harris may be thinking about it too in Chelmsford, England: that’s at least three rivers and twelve banks, right?
Note: A prosimetrum (Latin) is a literary piece made up of alternating passages of prose and poetry.
This essay was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in December 2008
Fred D’Aguiar, poet, novelist, and playwright, was born in London of Guyanese parents and raised in Guyana. His most recent book is Continental Shelf (2009), a collection of poems. He teaches at Virginia Tech in the United States.