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  • Vodun Iconography in WilsonHarris’s Palace of the Peacock *
  • Victoria Toliver (bio)

erokhin (“chameleon” in Edo): “How the world is changed by the magic power of the medicine [womb]man”

—Quoted in Ben-Amos, The Art of Power The Power of Art (131)

There are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise. The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feelings.

—Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (53)

Imaginative sensibility is uniquely equipped by forces of dream and paradox to mirror the inimitable activity of subordinated psyche.

—Wilson Harris, The Womb of Space (xvii)

When one reads the titles to Harris’s critical/theoretical book-length works, one is glimpsing the characteristic concerns of his oeuvre: what he sees as the shared and overlapping roles of “tradition, the writer and society”; his “explorations” of the seeds for redemption embedded within even the most facist, conquistadorial psyches; the necessity for writers and readers to cultivate “the womb of space: the cross-cultural imagination”; and his promotion of the “radical imagination”—i.e., an imagination that is “rooted” (Webster’s 1872) in the ability to read and think across culturally-embellished experiences. Explicating social and literary theories that are played out in his novels, each of Harris’s critical texts reissues his long-standing call for postcolonial writers and readers to perceive experience not in the framework of a limited sense of the here and now or a fixed notion of chronology, but in the context of all-encompassing “great time” in which “the living, the dead, and the unborn play equally significant roles in an unbroken historical chain” (Bellegare-Smith 13, as quoted in Michel 2). However, because of the unconventional manner in which Harris’s novels employ “marginalized” cultural expressions as the vehicles for conveying what are already veiled theories, one must approach his novels with an [End Page 173] imagination that not only is open to the hybridization of myth and theory, but also is literate in various world views. For instance, in his first novel, Palace of the Peacock (1960), enigmatic scenes which act as cryptic characters in Vodun script (vévés) not only provide physical and thematic structure for the narrative, but also etch into readers’ subconsciouses the centrality of cross-cultural literacy of the imagination (“the womb of space”) to the process of reading and writing as a way of achieving “voice” and “balance” under the direction of the collective unconscious muse (the character “Ghost” in recent novels) who orchestrates all such expressions.

By far the most provocative of his theoretical considerations, the notion of the imagination as a “womb of space” encompasses the others within what is a highly extended (rippling) gyno-centered metaphor for a latent native heteroglossia that is pregnant with regenerative potentialities (“absent presence[s]”) for closing riffs in cross-cultural intercourses both inside and outside the text proper. That “largely submerged teritory of the imagination” which Audre Lorde referred to as a hidden “gateway or threshold” (Explorations 26) to the “erotic,” womb space “give[s] the imagination room to perceive the shifting border line between original substance and vicarious hollow . . . room to perceive also overlapping areas of invention and creation” (Tradition 46) through “active reflection” (Womb xix), or “dramas of consciousness,” in which “The unconscious mind has come up, has addressed the conscious mind, and the ramifications of that dialogue become of immense importance” (Tradition 19). A “curiously mutual fortress of spirit between enemy and other, an organ of self-knowledge suffused with enemy bias so close to native greed for victory” (“A Note” 10), this wombic space mirrors and complements the phallic Yorukon Carib/cannibal bone-flute—that ritualized fossil of “intuitive diet and metaphysical consumption of bias” within “the soil of place” (“A Note” 9)—and, thus, speaks to the “pun on [Vodun] limbo as a kind of shared phantom limb” which “possesses archetypal resonances that embrace Egyptian Osiris, the resurrected Christ,” and the Indian Goddess, Kali, “who throws a psychical bridge with her many arms from destruction to creation” (Explorations 27). Emanating, however, not from...

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pp. 173-190
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