During the year 2009 the University of Guyana is celebrating the work of two of the foremost Guyanese and West Indian writers: Edgar Mittelholzer and Wilson Harris. This year marks the centenary of Mittelholzer’s birth and it is also a year in which the university wishes to recognise the great and original contribution of Harris to Caribbean and post-colonial literature, criticism and theory. This celebration is being observed through a series of events, which included two focused evenings during the XXVIII West Indian Literature Conference, one devoted to the Mittelholzer Centenary on April 26, 2009, and the other highlighting the work of Harris on April 28.
The most recent tribute is a mural which now marks the entrance to the School of Education and Humanities on the Turkeyen Campus of the university, ideally located just outside the Division of Creative Arts. One of the contributions by Harris that is being celebrated is the infinitely original approach that he has brought to the writing of fiction and the post-colonial theorising about the literature and history. These also involve his treatment of the landscape and his affinity with the visual arts which are both reflected in the mural.
This painting is Palace of the Peacock: Homage to Wilson Harris by George Simon, Philbert Gajadhar and Anil Roberts, three members of the UG’s Department of Language and Cultural Studies. Simon is among Guyana’s most distinguished artists one of whose preoccupations is the cosmos of the Lokono, while Gajadhar is also one of the nation’s foremost painters, one of whose most prominent works is a suite on Indian migration. Roberts is a final year student reading for a degree in Fine Arts.
Michael Gilkes in his elucidation of the narrative techniques of Harris has pointed out that one of the “secrets” of overcoming a difficulty that some readers seem to have understanding Harris is to recognise that he sees and describes the landscape like a painter. Another scholar, Mark McWatt, has analysed this very deep preoccupation with the landscape that is in the heart of Harris’ writing. McWatt shares with Harris several years’ experience practically living in the Guyanese interior, one as a boy growing up and the other as a hydrographic surveyor, but both as metaphysical artists on whose psyche that hinterland has left an indelible impression. It is therefore fitting that the university should honour Harris with a painting.
This mural Palace of the Peacock: homage to Wilson Harris was unveiled on June 25, 2009. It was inspired by a writer who was profoundly inspired by the landscape. At the beginning of two books in the novel Palace of the Peacock Harris quotes the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. One of these is the line “the widow making, unchilding, unfathering deep,” while in the First Book he quotes WB Yeats – “Cast a cold eye/On life, on death/ Horseman pass by”; and his own last sentence at the end of the novel is “Each of us now held in his arms what he had been forever seeking but what he had eternally possessed.” All of these reflect different elements of this infinite relationship that the writer has with the landscape, and which are also meaningfully represented in the mural.
They all have to do with nature, spirituality, and the metaphysical; landscape, earth, rebirth and possession. Hopkins regards nature as a manifestation of the creation and of the presence of God, the Christian god, on an otherwise decadent earth. Yeats’s lines are taken from his long poem Under Ben Bulben (1939), about the rebirth of what has been dead incorporated in a description of his native land in Ireland. Harris’s own lines sum up the novel’s themes of human rebirth through an experience which includes spiritual possession of and by the land; the Guyanese interior rainforest into which a materialistic boat crew sail to their deaths and rebirth following this spiritual possession experience.
The Simon/Gajadhar/Roberts mural in turn reflects these factors of the novelist’s work. It is basically a painting of the Amazonian rainforest using the partially intuitive style commonly used in thematic murals, but it is a depiction of the hinterland environment charged with a powerful energy. Its forest presences remain faithful to the way Harris infuses his narrative of the rainforest with energy; a presence that breathes life and possesses. Its ground is “stamped for ever like the breathless outline of a dreaming skeleton in the earth”; the trees “rose into upward flying limbs”; the forest “rustled and rippled with a sigh and ubiquitous step”; it was a “step” that “stopped and stood still.” When the narrator of Palace of the Peacock wanders into the forest and finds himself possessed by this ‘presence’ he is bewildered. “I gave a loud ambushed cry which was no more than an echo of myself – a breaking and grotesque voice, man and boy, age and youth speaking together.”
This energy that can transform, that possesses and leads to self discovery and rebirth is present in the mural, touching on perhaps all four novels in The Guyana Quartet. This energy in the painting contains life, myth and spirits. There is a representation of Kanaima and of possession which are elements of The Whole Armour. Kanaima has the power of ventriloquism, of the Amerindian hunter and of transformation. The novel’s protagonist Cristo, in hiding from the river police who hunt him for a murder he did not commit, appears to turn himself into a tiger. He hides away in the Pomeroon savannahs for a symbolic forty days and experiences rebirth. There is a jaguar in the mural representing the forest as well as this element of the novel (what Guyanese call tigers are really jaguars).
At a prominent corner of the work is the reproduction of a petroglyph, an Amerindian motif representing a god/spirit overlooking and protecting the forest. It is reminiscent of the novel The Secret Ladder in which a young scientist, a government surveyor who goes into the forests and savannahs much like Harris himself did, to measure and map the world. But he has to confront an ancient presence, the deity/spirit of the land as if he was materialistic modern technology intruding upon a world he did not understand. There is also a face in the painting depicting this deity/personality.
Representations of the fiction The Far Journey of Odin are perhaps the most difficult to discover in the mural, but there are certain suggestions and links with those images that also relate to other books. The images of possession, rebirth and spirit as well as kanaima and the ventriloquist are there. In the novel there is a question or metaphor which poses the main character Odin as a ghost from the past, as a spirit of another reality in the Guyanese psyche to which the painting may eloquently speak.
But Palace of the Peacock is ubiquitously represented by images and motifs, some of which are also relevant to other works. There is a large peacock prominent in the foreground whose reflection of the novel is both obvious and hidden. Those that are hidden include the tail and the eyes. Harris describes the metaphoric palace of the peacock in the work of fiction in great detail, some of which are descriptions of the peacock itself. The tail of that majestic bird is its most magnificent and spectacular feature. Among the jewels in that crown are what are called and what look like eyes. Subtle details of the tail and images of these ‘eyes’ are visible at various points in the painting and the eye is an important symbol and theme in the novel.
In a less dominant corner of the foreground is a boat. In the fiction the crew journey upriver in a boat which they eventually abandon at the foot of what Harris describes as “the highest waterfall they had ever seen”. It is quite obviously the Kaieteur which Harris represents fictionally and mythically in the novel. His descriptions are vivid and geomorphological, presented with the accuracy of the hydrographic surveyor sensitive to the river and rock forms. The artists paint the boat at the foot of the waterfall, prominent in the foreground.
Harris also describes what is important to mythology. Hidden behind the sheer drop, represented by the white sheet of falling water in the mural, is a cave, mysterious in the myths as it is in real appearance. The white mist surrounds it like thick smoke. The deified legendary Kaie dwells in the cave curtained by the water and perpetually visited by flocks of birds who swirl about in and out and pay him homage. All these are pictured in the narration of the novel although without any reference to the legend of Kaie.
But the birds are also subtly placed in the painting, in addition to a huge commanding eagle tangentially reminiscent of Harris’s reference to Hopkins’ poems about large hovering birds. Even the minute detail of a lizard-like creature is unobtrusively placed by the waterfall by the painters. This is in reference to the skeletal figures seen from afar climbing the cliff that contains the fall and its escarpment.
Harris’s muse, a major symbol in the novel is remembered in the mural by the face of a girl in another bright detail. This is the desirable, sensuous Mariella who appears in the novel as an abused woman, representing the abused and exploited land. She turns into an old Arawak woman who is also the land, the river and the spirit. Near the novel’s end she reappears as the muse, a woman dressed in the threads of her hair. She is indivisible from the land, the mission that the protagonists sail up the river to conquer as the conquistadores of history did.
In his critical commentary Harris speaks frequently of Quetzalcoatl, the mythical bird-serpent; “quetzal, the heavenly bird, coatl, the wise serpent.” These are there in the painting, rendered separately, both literally and in metaphor because the creature is itself inseparable from the landscape and its spiritual qualities.
Long before the current ringing of the warning bells about global warming and the threats of climate change, Harris was preoccupied with these in his novels; as early as The Infinite Rehearsals in 1987, as early as Palace of the Peacock in 1960. The rainforests are the life of the world and although Harris takes up this theme more intricately in the Carnival Trilogy (1987-1991), the preoccupation had its beginnings in the detailed metaphysical discourse in Palace. These are major features in “the apparition of Quetzalcoatl” and the powerful pervasive energy in the Simon/Gajadhar/Roberts mural painted in homage to the great novelist, critic and theorist.