note_05 Wilson Harris (1921-2018) -an inadequate tribute from 1990 #polyhistoric

WilsonHarris Ph Eamon McCabe

Photo Eamonn McCabe (The Guardian)

While adding to Chapters_Essays and Culture_Crit, I’ve been discovering how much material there is -its drives and formations- and came across a very short double review from the New Statesman, September 1990. You can scroll a long way down the Culture-Crit page for those very early pieces. Please! This one (or these short paragraphs), on The Four Banks of the River of Space (the last part of Harris’ Carnival Trilogy published by Faber, like all his books), is not exactly a major critical work but does, in its concentrated little way, resonate with me. The G.’s obituary for Wilson Harris does too.

In 1990 there was still something called Commonwealth Literature, a peculiarly handy way of keeping peoples, histories and cultures in place. It’s tempting to write ‘Foreign and…’. Publishing was on the turn from actual independent ‘houses’ towards global corporations. It seemed quaint, dusty, hearty and authentic in part but very constrained at the time (also, CL at least, ‘well-intended’). Stuff had begun moving, inexorably, towards the (catastrophically messy-but-fertile) geopolitical present which some of us had been winging towards with eager naiveté. Restless and relentless…

FourBanksWilsonHarrisPolyhistoricCropDon’t judge these little paragraphs (from a longer but still short piece) too harshly; I was trying to find ways to write/talk about things, worlds, visceral and experientially familiar ‘things’ which felt like an exercise in translation at the time. Faltering, off-puttingly difficult, opaque indeed, but necessary. I mean free of/extra to academic, theoretical construction and constrictions, of course, right? Harris’ world and language is not mine obviously, but it conjured relations to worlds and words that definitely felt like mine. Were mine, absolutely.

I spent that summer of 1990 saying ‘no’ to everything, figuring out the structure and writing fragments towards what was becoming a first novel (called El Mundo). I was represented as a Director for TV documentaries, directed a couple of tiny things that Autumn, and designed productions which came together as one last mad hurrah in these very months (paying my assistants three times what I earned for this piece a day) which enabled me, with one leap…

Actually, the ‘polyhistoric’ figure comes from one of a number of prefaratory quotes; “Quantum reality consists of simultaneous possibilities, a ‘polyhistoric’ kind of being … incompatible with our … one-track minds” (Nick Herbert Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics, 1985). Cumbersome but on the right track, conceptually … I’m glad to have ‘touched’ Harris and his Guyanese worlds. And I’m glad I needed to be working these polyhistoric realms then, too…

Working these things and the kinds that Atlas Press had been republishing, Oulipian and other word/sound avant-gardes. Just over a year earlier, I was working up in the mountains of Guatemala trying to deploy all these worlds, forms, witness and words to some new effect. I discovered I was already doing it in the journals I was filling with text series with rhythms, formal relations, triggers, fictive tricks of my own. That moment in a run-down courtyard up in the mountains, was the seed for ‘a thousand essential things’, but it took a while -years- before I could actually capture, generate, write them, rather than stumble upon something by applied indeterminacy…

Wilson Harris worked the forests of ‘British Guiana’ before emigrating to London in 1959. “It was while working as a surveyor in Guyana in the 1950s, discovering the enigmatic silences of remnant Amerindian cultures and the haunting landscapes of the rainforests, that Harris pioneered his individual and expressive voice, first revealed in poems published in Georgetown…” according to Michael Mitchell (above). In these years Harris also, “led expeditions charting the great rivers of the Guyanese interior and their effects on the flood-prone coastlands.” This ‘foresting’ and ‘rivering’ will be familiar from his dense fictive work.

My grandmother lived a near century like this, born in 1901 on the other side of colonial privilege in the Indian subcontinent, in a familial milieu that extended quite far into the Caribbean (Bahamas to Trinidad). How her world changed, and yet how much more Harris’ has. Born on a dateline between Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon/Edouard Glissant, he out-lived them all handsomely while scratching at similar things, albeit from within different histories, traditions and spatial realms of identification…

What will a writer born in 2021 in Guyana do with words?



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