- Translations of Gender, Pain, and Space: Wilson Harris’s The Carnival Trilogy
Vaguely alarming yet unreal, laden with consequence yet evaporating before the mind because not available to sensory confirmation, unseeable classes of objects such as subterranean plates, Seyfert galaxies, and the pains occurring in other people’s bodies flicker before the mind, then disappear.—Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain
In his recent work, Wilson Harris has been moving toward representing a multiplicity of bodies in relation to each other and to space. These bodies extend out toward and embody the sky, the earth, and the entire cosmos, as Harris sees the body’s extension out to “the complex landscapes of the earth [as] a dialogue, half-conscious, half-unconscious, with spatial gulfs of subjectivity through and beyond oneself—in one’s nature as in the nature of the cosmos” (Explorations 107). While in many ways this approach, especially as it is incorporated into his recent, allegorical Carnival Trilogy (consisting of Carnival, The Infinite Rehearsal, and The Four Banks of the River Space), may at first glance [End Page 123] appear to fit the charges that Harris is at times an abstract visionary who is less-than-interested in immediate political concerns, 1 I agree with Russell McDougall that Harris’s specific concern with the body in Carnival, the first novel of the trilogy, is related closely to or “resuscitates” the “dead metaphors” of “the social body” and “the body politic” (3), and I would extend the analysis further to the rest of the Trilogy as well. In a reference to T. S. Eliot in The Infinite Rehearsal, for example, Harris argues for “the necessity to create a true and intimate life of conscience, life of authority within the body of the waste land” (217), the waste land encompassing the twentieth century. The body is metaphor, then; but it is also the reality of “flesh-and-blood,” as Harris invokes it throughout all three novels, that shows evidence of the “stigmata” or translatable wound that provides a record of the violent past as well as a catalyst for forging a new sense of freedom in community.
In The Carnival Trilogy, most of the action takes place in New Forest, a thinly disguised Guyana; but, as Harris moves toward more global concerns, toward formulating a heterogeneous community that breaks out of the violence and oppression of its history, it is even more pronounced in these later novels that “Guyana is conceived of as a confluence, the node of a gyre to which all has come and from which all can emerge, and whose individual features can offer models for spiritual ascent” (Wilkinson 189). In other words, the journey back to New Forest/Guyana that takes place in these novels, while an epic journey with necessarily limited national applications, instead becomes a way to envision a cross-cultural history of global proportions. The focus on the body is quite pronounced in these later works, and as The Carnival Trilogy catalogs and questions recent manmade catastrophes and violent political legacies worldwide, Harris theorizes the mutability of gender in order to “re/member” the “body of Carnival as a transformation of the world, a carnival degradation of god and the universe” (McDougall 19). That is to say, he gestures toward more open-ended concepts of gender and the body than he does in earlier works to formulate an even more inclusive, cross-cultural community.
Moreover, concern with the body has been a common theme in Caribbean literature, a way to produce subjectivity, and thus identity. As Michael Dash explains, [End Page 124]
The imaginative concern with the subject . . . is responsible for a system of imagery in Caribbean literature whose centre is the body. The body is an endlessly suggestive sign through which the process of “subjectification” is mediated and expressed. Corporeal imagery in the Caribbean indicates the tensions that underlie the process of self-characterization, of the récupération de soi in the individual imagination. The ever shifting, unstable relationship between body and non-body, between dis-membering and re-membering, is a continuous aesthetic and thematic concern. . . .
The mediation between spirit and flesh, disincarnate subject and incarnate...