Wilson Harris and the ‘cross-cultural sacred’

By Lori Shelbourn

There is unending curiosity about the way Wilson Harris writes.
This is an edited version of an article that was presented by Lori Shelbourn at an inter-disciplinary conference on the theme ‘Empowerment and the Sacred’ in June 2011.  Lori Shelbourn researches the work of Guyanese writer Sir Wilson Harris at the University of Leeds in the UK.  Harris is known for his deep interest in multi-culturalism and she explains the way he links the cross-cultural and cultural identity with the sacred in what is called the “cross-cultural sacred.”
This is only a part of the article, in which she explains Harris’s “artistic practice” – his “method of writing” and why this way of writing may be described as cross-cultural and “sacred.” – ALC

Throughout his writing career, Harris has repeatedly talked about his own work in terms of an exploration of ‘the cross-cultural imagination,’ and has consistently drawn a distinction between cross-culturalism  and multiculturalism.  So he says, for example, in an interview with the poet Fred D’Aguiar: “Cross-culturality differs radically from multiculturality.  There is no creative and re-creative sharing of dimensions in multi-culturality.  The strongest culture in multiculturality holds an umbrella of tolerance over the rest, which have no alternative but to abide by the values that the strongest believe to be universal.”  And he is also highly critical of the tendency towards cultural ‘ghettoization’ in multiculturalism – or what economist Amartya Sen has more recently described as the tendency for multiculturalism to become “plural monoculturalism.”

al creightonThese sorts of problematizations of multiculturalism have been fairly widely voiced, so I am not going to rehearse them here.  But what I would like to do is to suggest that Harris’s conception of the cross-cultural sacred is, at least in part, an effort to address these limitations.

Harris talks about ‘the sacred’ in terms of that which is “beyond seizure”; “beyond capture”; and, at other times, in terms of the “unknowable”; the “unbearable”; the “ungraspable” or the “unimaginable.”  So, for example, in an essay titled ‘In The Name of Liberty’ (1990) he says that “the core of the sacred is beyond total seizure or capture within structures or pigmentations or dyes past and present.”

And in an interview from the same year Harris talks about “the dimensionality of the Creator as really almost unimaginable.  You can’t grasp such dimensionality,” he says (Interview with Alan Riach).

 Wilson Harris
Wilson Harris

Now, there is nothing particularly unusual about this so far.  In describing the sacred as that which is “beyond capture” or “seizure,” Harris is in line with an etymological sense of the term as ‘that which is set apart’, as well as customary usage of this word to describe that which is beyond appropriation, infringement or violation.   And, likewise, his description (or anti-description) of the divine in terms of the ‘unknowable’ or ‘unimaginable’ is common to a lot of religious discourses and definitions of the sacred.

But then what Harris does, which is more unusual, is to say that in so far as the sacred is beyond ownership or absolute claim within any singular human perspective or framework – in so far as ‘the sacred’ is precisely that which can never be ‘captured’ or ‘claimed’ absolutely or exactly – it can be understood as the ground of cross-culturalism, or, as he puts it elsewhere, for realizing the ‘shared territory’ that exists “between windows of reality that we tragically reinforce into absolutes.”
There is a 1994 essay – called ‘Imagination, Dead, Imagine: Bridging a Chasm’ – in which Harris discusses these ideas at some length, and in a way that suggests some interesting implications for questions of power, empowerment, and freedom.

So, in very broad brush-strokes, Harris is doing a couple of things in this essay.  He is arguing for what he calls a “concept of creativity in dialogue with the sacred,” and this argument is combined with a critique of “secular realism.”

At the same time, he is extending this into an argument for “a visualisation of community” that is grounded in the sacred.

And he contrasts this – the cross-cultural sacred – with an imagination of community that is based upon constructs of racial or ethnic purity, dogmatic identity or dogmatic homogeneity.  Unsurprisingly enough, perhaps, he associates the latter particularly with nationalism, though not exclusively.

He sees such ideas of purity and dogmatic identity as persistent within many constructs of community, religious and secular alike.

He plays the argument out, in part, through a reading of pre-Columbian art, and specifically a reading of five different examples of sculptures that, for him, demonstrate some striking – if, realistically-speaking, utterly insupportable – cross-cultural connections.  So, with a definite glint of subversive humour, he talks about a “small figure in buff clay […] from Pueblo Copanahuasta, AD 550-950 called WARRIOR which sustains a caricaturized royal tiger” – and has, he says, an “astonishing resemblance,” to the Tudor King Henry VIII’; or the late-classic sculpture from Palenque that is displayed in the New York Metropolitan Museum, and which is popularly called the ‘Juarez sculpture’ because of its vivid resemblance to President Benito Juarez – Abraham Lincoln’s contemporary; or a  sculpture of an hieratic ape, from Guatemala AD 100-250 or earlier, which has “a cloistered nunlike expression one might perceive in a mediaeval European cathedral.”

Now Harris argues that, with our “addiction to realism,” we would be inclined to see these sculptures as racial or ethnic “types.”  But for him – and this is the slightly more serious point that he is making ‒ the kinds of cross-special, cross-cultural connections that these sculptures suggest, the kinds of proximities between intimate and stranger reality that they explore, are enabled by an artistic practice that pursued the “figuration of a creator that could never be seized exactly”; and that sought the consent of such a deity as they “ventured into the cosmos.”

When Harris describes his approach to writing, he places a lot of emphasis on the process of revision – or what he calls “the revisionary strategy” ‒ but in quite an unusual way.  He says that he writes initially quite quickly and with intense concentration, and from what he says, this way of writing is about allowing for the surfacing of unconscious or semi-conscious ideas, assumptions and associations without trying to grasp them completely; in a way that is perhaps similar to forms of automatic writing.  He then goes back through his drafts paying close attention to that which is strange, out of place, and unfamiliar to him – oddities which he describes as “intuitive clues” that “appear to have been planted” in his drafts “by another hand.”  And he then revises through these ‘clues.’

So this is Harris talking about the process – the “revisionary strategy” as he calls it – in a lecture at Cambridge University in 1990 entitled ‘Originality and Tradition’: “You may think it a bit astonishing that one should say one has discovered something in work one has written because you would assume that I would know about it when I wrote it.  But the fact is that I find that it is as if when one writes one is writing in concert with strangers within oneself.

The whole re-visionary strategy comes out of the way these strangers in the self work together so that there are clues, intuitive clues one plants in the narrative, that seem alien.  The temptation arises to cut out these intuitive clues.  But I find myself revising through those clues, and a certain kind of strategy emerges.  I concentrate very deeply on the process of revision, but the fact is that there are certain connections that seem to exist in the narrative which I am not conscious of, even as I write it…”

We can already see in these descriptions that there is a kind of unravelling of ownership at work in Harris’s re-visionary strategy, an unravelling of his claim over his memories, experiences and ideas; and it is here that I would make the connection to the sacred, and the idea of fiction-as-sacrament.  Where we might think about revision in its most conventional sense as a process in which the author works towards making their writing ever more consistent, and more true to their experiences or impressions of the real, Harris is doing almost exactly the opposite.

He is reading against his own thoughts and memories against the grain, following the signs of the stranger within them, and effectively locating the understanding of these experiences beyond his claim, beyond his own immediate comprehension, in an unknown – perhaps unknowable – imagination.  And in this way, I would suggest, cross-culturality and sacrality, the cross-culturalization and the sacralisation of life, become inter-articulated.

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