The Edgar Mittleholzer Memorial Lectures – 1983

One of Guyana’s most prolific and best-loved novelists, the late Roy Heath possessed a consumate understanding of the rich sources from which Guyanese and Caribbean writers derived the themes for their works. Heath himself drew on his experiences of urban Guyana to produce a vein of storytelling that remains a highly valued part of the Guyanese literary culture.

The eight in a distinguished lineup of Guyanese literary personages to deliver the Edgar Mittelholzer Memorial Lectures, the first of Heath’s trilogy focuses on the sources of Guyanese and Caribbean fiction. In this issue The Guyana Review reprints the full text of that lecture.

By Roy Heath

Roy Heath

Storytelling, like painting and music, dates back to pre-Neolithic times, this is to say, the earliest period of man’s history. Perhaps the most striking aspect of storytelling throughout the ages is its shifting centre of interest. Among the aboriginal Indians of South America storytelling attributes an importance to animals that matches man’s, in fact the jaguar is almost invariably man’s superior. Man steals fire from him, marries his daughters to him and in general treats him with a reverence reserved for the latter-day gods. The jaguar emerges from these stories with the dignity of a hero belonging to Japanese fiction.

It is during this early planting period – as exemplified by the way of life most aboriginal Indians North of the Amazon- that certain universal themes began to preoccupy the story makers: incest, disloyalty and rape characterize some of the most striking tales – striking to us, no doubt because they are the stuff of contemporary obsessions. But the most common themes are the origin of the stars, of fish poison, of fire, and so on, providing, as it were, a summary of the technology on which their way of life depends.

Most of these stories, then, appear to be functional, and do not depend for their effect on the identification of the individual listener with the characters involved. Yet, it is precisely this kind of judgement that must attract suspicion, for such tales may evoke an emotional response in the Indians as profound as our reaction to a classic novel. Nevertheless, they do not exploit an interest in individual behaviour, nor are they divorced from the destiny of the social group for whom they were composed.

Edgar Mittelholzer

This undifferentiated view of man as part of the animal world later lost ground to stories centering around the hero, who was to become the chief preoccupation of the story-maker, a remarkable development that took place late in early Neolithic times. In Guyana we have the opportunity to witness these two contrasting mentalities, the undifferentiated and the individualistic. The self seeking of the town dweller is alien to the psychology of aboriginal Indians who, as late as the early part of this century, could not even be persuaded to work for others.

This new culture-hero, while he represents an emerging individual psychology, is very different from the hero of later times. Far from being an ideal male, a model to be emulated, he is a trickster figure, unreliable and devious, often with an unbridled sexual appetite, who sounds a warning against the unhibited individual ego. In his most primitive form he appears in the Winnebago trickster cycle of the Iroquois Indians of North America, while in Guyana he is a Macunaima, the culture hero of the Arecuna tribe, who once used his magical powers to hoist the communal hut high into the air simple because he was angry with his brother.

Kwaku Anansi, hero of Akan folk tales, emphasizes one aspect of the trickster figure, namely his ability to survive, thus presenting the Winnebago and Arecuna hero in an attenuated form, divested of many anarchical traits. It is worth mentioning at this point that, despite numerous developments in story-telling, the trickster figure has not disappeared: he lives on in the villain of fiction and drama, a figure of endless fascination who acts as a foil to our hero.

With the appearance of a culture hero came a parallel development in the length of the story, which now told as part of a series. If the hero provided the connecting link to the parts of his misadventures conformed to a pattern, so giving the often lengthy series of tales a unity to which the old stories of animals and humans did not inspire. The problems of unity and length are important since they anticipate the latest flowering of story-telling, the novel or long story in prose.

Parallel to the development of the short story into a series of tales, there arose a new form designed to meet the need for a historical record of traumatic events. In Guyana both the Arawaks and Warraus recount epic tales of their wars with the Caribs, late intruders into South America from the islands to the North. These stories are necessarily long and like all so-called historical records show their tellers, the Warrau and Arawaks, in a heroic light. This period was the heroic age when the Caribs, unable to stabilize their growing population, penetrated South American North of the Amazon by the way of the Orinoco, the Waini and other large rivers. Such long epic tales are characteristics of a certain historical time, and if my evidence is taken from story-telling among the aboriginal Indians it is not for want of examples elsewhere. The Ramayana epic in India, the Mandingo epics of Mali and the Homeric epics of Greece all serve a similar purpose and belong to a similar historical time. Interestingly enough the epic follows, broadly, the same line of development with regard to the hero as did the shorter tales. More diffused in their centre of interest in their earliest form, they sought to concentrate on the deeds of a few characters in their latest manifestations. What the Warrau did to the Caribs in the Warrau-Carib wars, as told by the Warrau, becomes, the later heroic age, the successes of the Greeks through leaders like Agamenon and Ulysses.

We see, therefore, a parallel development in the obsession with the hero-idea in both forms of story-telling. The ego is well on its way to establishing itself as one of the pivotal preoccupations of fiction as fiction or fiction as history. Fiction as history is in fact still the main form of history taught in schools and universities throughout the world. Just as story-telling is unable to resist the fascination of the trickster figure is the guise of the villain, in the same way historical investigations is trapped by the demands of propaganda.

It must be obvious to many that nothing has been said about women and children in the history of the art of story-telling. The stories that have been collect among Neolithic peoples all tell of an art manipulated by male storytellers. The heroes are almost invariable male until the late epics, and where a female protagonist appears she is a temptress – leading men to their doom in the forest or the at the bottom of the sea – a bringer of disaster who, against all warnings, opens a box out of which fly all the woes of the this world, or a faithful wife, ideal of man’s wish-fulfilment. Children fare even worst, for it is only recently that fiction has ceased maltreating or murdering them, thus disclosing the unconscious hand behind the apparently conscious art of invention. Just as the release of the age in an important aspect on the history of story-telling, so the role of women will provide a later impulse to the moulding of a new fiction, a matter to be discussed later.

Wilson Harris

Up to this point the direction taken by the story-maker’s art appears to have followed a determinist course: a certain historical time gives rise to a certain type of story. Propaganda itself yields to the demand of the period. But if the role of propaganda is subtle in pre-literate times, its purpose becomes clean when the art of printing allows the dissemination of stories in a permanent form. The German oral stories collected by the brothers Grimm were brutal in the extreme. When the prince came upon Sleeping Beauty he did not wake her up with a kiss as the written version would have it: he raped her. The pressures operating at the time, overt and otherwise, obliged the Grimm brothers to modify these folk tales, in order to make them acceptable to the church and the new merchant class. It was all very well for the common people to regale themselves with stories of an unbridled imaginations, but the wives and children of the middle class had to be protected. Stories were made to match the art of that period, a fey, prettified version of the bourgeois world, in which violence was banished and a longed-for order reigned. Organized religion became the master censor, which prescribed theatrical productions that were not  put on at the Court or in the Church porch.

The reality in West Africa was quite different. Villagers were able to pursue their art, free from the interference of an umbrella-like religious organization. The Gelede secret society among the Yoruba of Nigeria, formed to protect men from the power of women, have their poetry, songs, stories and dances. The vigour of public story-telling at the door-mouth was equalled by the vigour of private story-telling among the secret societies.

The theory of economic activity as the source of change, like every system of investigation, has its limitations. Old Chinese paintings in which humans are dwarfed by the landscape contrast sharply with African art whose subjects demand attention by their very posture. The cultural experience also has a formative influence. One would expect, therefore, the content of stories of one culture to have a recognizable stamp beyond the exigencies of historical time. In West African stories the characters meet people without limbs on the road; an old woman begs a ride from a generous young man, who is unable to get her off his back. These are stories in which their character inhabit a nightmare world of terror and dismay. Other cultures at a similar historical time-stage are characterized by a gender vision of fate. But it is a matte of interest that uncensored African and European art, which provide humans with a violent image of themselves in the world- even in the plastic arts the image is aggressive- should share such an oppressive world view.

It would be easy to get lost in the multiplicity of genres that emerge as the merchant class grows more powerful. Didactic stories, religious, fairy tales and others vie with one another for public attention, reflecting in their division of interest the division of labour that seeks to satisfy a growing demand for goods. But it is precisely in this period that a story-telling form emerges which gathers together all the threads of the art into a single genre, the novel, that is to say, a long story in prose. It is difficult and perhaps futile to attempt to discover the country that can claim the honour to the first novel. Modern research ascribes the earliest acknowledged examples to eleventh century Japan where the novel flourished under the leadership of women authors, while Europe and China produced outstanding examples in the 16th and 17th centuries. Characterization in depth and a sustained story line were salient features of the new form. A middle-class art from, the novel chartered the course of middleclass aspiration and achievement, disappointment and disgust: in Europe it became more potent as cultural anaemia became more apparent. It was not the novel that discovered depth psychology, but rather the psychologists who took their cue from the new surgeons of the mind, following in the wake of practitioners like Gogol and Dostoyevsky, just as egrets forage for a meal in the footsteps of cattle. But the individual had no sooner come into his own then he went into swift decline. He was examined, anlysed, dismantled, reconstituted, rejected, rehabilitated, reviled and even    dehumanised.

The trickster figure, once dressed in the garb of respectability to play the hero, now survives as villain and anti-hero, and social anguish has been translated into ‘fictional’ revulsion.

In West Africa the novel has gone its own way; unaffected by the profound pessimism of Europe and the United States it has been able to produce remarkable works like Buchi Emecheta’s Bride Price, a masterpiece that draws it vigour from a powerful culture source. Gabriel Marques has written the first genuinely South American novel, 100 years of Solitude and followed it with Autumn of the Patriarch, a novel of such magical evocations that it confirms fiction as an understanding art form.

The novel, then, has become a comprehensive form into which a variety of inventions can be poured. From Robbe-Grillet (French) and Wilson Harris (Guyanese), two of the leaders of the experimental school of fiction, to the detailed chronicles of some American writers, it covers a vast terrain. Any literate culture may borrow the novel and make it what it will. On the one hand it has re-absorbed poetry and drama, history and myth, and on the other it has been fractionalized into numerous genres.

A development in fiction which might well prove to be one the most significant, is its growing interest in woman, who often no longer appear as appendages of men. Much of art can be described as reflecting male wish-fulfilment and anxiety. Not only are the majority of its practitioners men, but its subject matter too often betrays a male concern, so that adultery, violence and murder are its staples. In at least one country, where more than half of the novelists are women, the reader is male to confront the condition of a female psyche far removed from the illusions of male fiction. If Flaubert and Tolstoy warn against the tragedy adultery brings in its train Emecheta the Nigeria novelist ignores the subject. For her it is the very existence of men as the great manipulators that fuel her obsessive vision. Even the titles of her books, Bride Price, the ironic Joys of Motherhood, are disturbing to the male illusion.

Old people and children rarely achieve prominence in fiction, a fact as deplorable as the neglect of the female psyche. If children are no longer regularly brutalized or murdered with a ritual fervor they do not frequently appear, and where the demands of realism oblige authors to put them on stage they are treated with cursory attention. Our interest in the condition of the very old and very young is no less sketchy than is our understanding of the human mind. This observation alone serves as a reminder that story-telling, despite its remarkable age still has much ground to cover.

Modern psychology would have us believe that the source of fiction lies in the individual experience. Edgar Mittleholzer’s recurrent themes can be traced to his childhood. Nikolai Gogol’s mania for describing people’s noses is attributed to a castration fear, and so on. Yet, the recurrent themes in Mittelholzer’s books are the obsessions of the Guyanese Creole in the pre-1960 Guyana, just as Gogol’s preoccupation with sneezing, nose wiping and the disappearance of noses can be traced to Ukranian 18th and 19th century stories. What appears at first to be an individual mania draws, in fact, on a pool of cultural experience. Yet, it is through individual experience that the author is able to empathize with a culture or with humanity at large. It is, therefore, useful to identify experiences which might serve as a starting point for a story capable of achieving resonance among a large group of listeners or readers.

It is axiomatic that first novels are frequently autobiographical; furthermore, they might possess a numinous quality subsequent books can never recapture. If the source of fiction is the individual experience its vividness often belongs to the power of recollection of childhood events. Childhood memories undoubtedly furnish much material for the subject matter of fiction. Some authors openly proclaim their intention of writing an autobiography, while others are convinced that their fiction is a made-up story. But neither autobiography nor fiction is what is seems, for the first is all too often an apologia festooned with inventions, and the second invention anchored to a solid raft of truth. The author’s unconscious intention invariably become clear after the third or fourth book: a one-sided treatment of a recurring theme, consistently weak male characters, a preoccupation with death, self-hatred and much else, which tumble out like the words of a patient under the influence of a truth drug.

But fiction as recollection is not all obsessive. The observant writer will look outward and note the behaviour of others, the outline shape of a tree, the way a child cocks its head speech patterns and a host of little things. For they all go to make up the kaleidoscopic background against which is to be played out the action that justifies the descriptive term ‘story’. This detail is the hallmark of much contemporary fiction. Novelists from North and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Europe and Asia all feel obliged to work this pattern. At first sight a novel, the most evolved story-telling form, is synonymous with detail. Yet the Bible story of Joseph the Dreamer who was sold into slavery by his brother conforms to the definition of the novel while lacking great detail: a long story in prose, it has a protagonist whose character is convincingly portrayed. Besides it boasts qualities that most contemporary fiction might well emulate. This magnificent tale refutes the contentions that the novel is a modern literary form and that it requires a detailed evocation of the environment in which the story takes place. Significant detail does contribute to its appeal: Joseph’s megalomania, his rejection of Potiphar’s wife, the symbolic importance of the number 7 in his dreams, all help to cast the story’s spell. Extravagant detail on the other hand is a convention of the contemporary novel, just as guns are a convention of the American cinema. The convention persuades us that it is indispensable.

In the foregoing I have indicated that the sources of fiction reside mainly in the socioeconomic condition and that the individual experience, while capable of imbuing a work with numinous quality, takes its direction and broader vision from the socio-economic condition. In my view any forecast regarding the direction of fiction will have to take the above into account. Does experimental fiction give us a clue to the new directions or will the bias be in favour of the fiction of Gabriel Marques’ magical realism? I have no idea, for if the sources of art are identifiable its future is elusive.

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