- “Hieroglyphics of Space”Wilson Harris in The Waiting Room
When providing an introduction for Guyanese readers of Wilson Harris’s privately printed volume of poetry in 1954, A.J. Seymour noted an element of Harris’s approach to writing which was only to become more pronounced in the years that followed the publication of Eternity to Season. “To an unusual degree,” it seemed to Seymour and to many readers who followed afterwards, “the poetry of Wilson Harris is intermingled with philosophy. As he writes his verse he is also creating a flux of thought in which he is probing ultimate matters and asking questions of life” (53). Foremost among those questions has been the relationship between enunciation and subjectivity, dramatized in Harris’s novels as the relationship between inscription and character. Though heavily invested in the aesthetics of the symbolic, the writings of Harris early on took a turn away from the commitment to an ideal of a unified speaking subject which marks realism and much of the symbolist enterprise. While Harris has not joined postmodernist writers such as Georges Perec, Harry Mathews, Amiri Baraka and Julio Cortázar in a rejection of symbolist modes of encoding narrative, his works have always participated in the questioning of the givens of character and subjectivity which marks so much of the more interesting new writing in the latter half of the century. Explaining the genesis of his Guyana Quartet, Harris recalls that “Some years ago [he] attempted to outline the possibility of validating or proving the truths that may occupy certain twentieth century works of fiction that diverge, in particular degrees, from canons of realism” (Guyana 7). Clearly one canon of realism from which Harris diverges is the adherence to the production of an illusion of unified characters, an illusion orchestrated in the cohesive mind of an author whose own consciousness is the limiting horizon of fictive possibilities. The fictions of Wilson Harris do not simply replace the illusions of a realist unitary self with its expansive double, that familiar, Jungian unconscious by which the individual masks itself as the universal. Harris’s novels explode boundaries of self and agency within a nebulous territory traversed by the shifting flows of writing.
In his first novel, Palace of the Peacock, Harris had begun the work of overwriting the limit lines of the realistically delineated character. The narrator of Palace of the Peacock, contemplating the character Donne as the “unnatural soul of heaven’s dream,” looses the grammatical fixity of realism’s use of pronoun and shifter when he observes, “he was myself standing outside of me while I stood inside of him” (Guyana 26). Such an unsettling of the natural physics of realism alters not only the reader’s view of the protagonist, but also, as the Guyanese characters might put it, reader self. While all [End Page 125] readers early in their lives encounter the eeriness of that sense of otherness in transit which accompanies our taking into ourselves of a narrative voice, the language of an other, realism encourages readers to suspend that sense of becoming the stranger in the very process of encouraging an identification with the characters. Reading texts such as Palace of the Peacock is a reading of otherness of the type subsequently described by Jacques Derrida: “. . . suddenly a tone come from one knows not where renders speechless, if this can be said, the tone that tranquilly seemed to determine . . . the voice and thus insure the unity of destination, the self-identity of some addressee . . . or sender . . .” (52–53).
Wilson Harris, of course, did not have to await the coming of Jacques Derrida to supply him with a framework for his undertaking. The Waiting Room, published in 1967, draws its first epigraph from a letter John Keats wrote to Richard Woodhouse in October of 1818 in which Keats avers: “. . . it is a very truth that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature—how can it, when I have no nature?” (Waiting 6). Harris attempts no simple reading of this variety of negative capability into his text as a romantic gesture; he...