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  • An Interview with Wilson Harris
  • Charles H. Rowell

Index to Selected Images of Wilson Harris

This interview was recorded on Sunday, January 8, 1995, in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil.

This interview was originally taped on May 6, 1992, at the home of Wilson Harris in Chelmsford, Essex, England, and was revised via mail in October, 1994.


You are originally from Guyana. When I visited Guyana in July of 1991, I was immediately overwhelmed by its vast and urgent natural environment. Guyana is a world of nature—that is, no matter where you are in that South American country, the natural world, with its profusion of plants, declares itself. When you lived in Guyana, you worked in the interior as a surveyor. You know the rainforest. Did the world of the rainforest have any direct influence on the development of your sensibilities as a fiction writer?


The rainforest made an enormous impact on me. I learned that one should not attempt to—indeed one cannot—colonize the unconscious. C.G. Jung speaks of the collective unconscious and its application to the human psyche. I prefer the term “universal unconscious.” If you wish, Charles, to explore the distinction—as I see it—between “collective unconscious” and “universal unconscious” perhaps we could do so at a later state in our conversation.

Civilization is habituated, it seems to me, to perceive the ground it seizes, the landscapes it manipulates, as passive or unconscious.

Conquistadorial habit dies hard. Polluted environments, as everyone knows, are a sign of the age in which we live. Human discourse tends to frame itself into an absolute tool of communication. There is a reliance on visual materials to augment an appeal to human greed, human lust, and a command of the resources of nature.

Yet we are aware, I think, of how tragically impoverished society would be if it lost an ear for other voices, other rhythms, in the fabric of reality. It is possible to perceive the reality of nature as a phenomenal gesture—phenomenal sounding-board—of live, rhythmic, fossil resources that echo within diverse shapes.

A slight creature like a bird—that we may hold in the palm of our hand—is a living, fossil instrument or organ. Across aeons it has been shaped to breathe the utterance of music.

How indebted are composers of music to an overview of—and an immersion in—layers of the live, fossil unconscious? Patterns of bird-song are now being scanned in the humanities to assess peculiar strategies of composition by composers of genius. [End Page 192] It is well-known that the music of the Black American South—which affected the prose of Jean Toomer, William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston—possesses rhythms astonishingly close to the marvelous vocabulary of bird-song.

Poets and epic imaginations have long been affected by the rhythms of the unconscious erupting into the subconscious and the conscious. This is nothing new. What is new is the tendency in post-modernist philosophy to jettison the unconscious and the depth-Imagination. My feeling is that when this happens the depth-Imagination becomes hideously perverse. It seeks an outlet in the rising waves of crime, in a plague of violence, and in brutal, civil strife. Sometimes it seems that civilization is becoming prone to “earthquakes of psyche.”

I spoke a moment ago of the live, fossil instrumentality that shapes the throat and the frame and the anatomy of a bird and how this articulates the utterance of music. The bird is not aware of what is happening. The role of genius then would appear to lie in a continuous wrestling with the impulses, the strange, sometimes alien voices, of the eruptive unconscious that create a re-visionary medium within the conscious. An inner dynamic tilts the balance away from eruptive violence. In parallel with the “live, fossil utterance of music” one knows that the advent of certain kinds of weather announces itself in an oscillation of fluid in the eardrum, in a commotion in the physical organism. The human animal is frail and vulnerable. And it is extremely dangerous I feel to ignore a range of association that may flood or fire the depth...

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