Cross-Cultural Nostoi: Wilson Harris’s The Mask of the Beggar
Cross-Cultural Nostoi: Wilson Harris’s The Mask of the Beggar
Abstract and Keywords
Harris’s novel The Mask of the Beggar appropriates and reinterprets Homer’s Odyssey. This chapter engages with Harris’s underlying philosophy developed throughout his long literary career, paying particular attention to his emphasis on building cross-cultural bridges between peoples. The role performed by Wilson’s trope of the beggar’s mask within the novel is considered, relating it to Odysseus’s humble disguise on Ithaca. His complex use of a Cyclopean motif is explicated, and the way in which his work engages with and contests Bakhtin’s theories of polyphony and the novel, is considered. In addition, an early, little-known drama of Harris’s is seen to have had a direct influence on Derek Walcott when he came to write Omeros.
Less well-known than Derek Walcott, Wilson Harris nevertheless bears comparison with the Nobel Prize-winning St Lucian poet. In his own right he is a significant though difficult writer, whose work comes to illuminate and be illuminated by the work of other contemporary Caribbean writers, in a reciprocal model that is not dissimilar to the ‘reception’ model underlying this volume.1 The modern work sheds new light on the ancient, just as much as knowledge of the ancient contributes to one’s understanding of the modern. In addition, it is necessary to consider the Caribbean works within their Caribbean literary context, as well as social, political, and historical contexts, as Emily Greenwood has demonstrated: ‘To wrench one author out of this circulation of knowledge [ … ] is to obscure a dense web of intellectual relationships.’2 Though this context spreads far beyond the scope of this book, some important links between the chosen writers and artworks will be uncovered, thereby contributing to an understanding of their work.
This chapter will examine Wilson Harris’s twenty-fourth novel, The Mask of the Beggar (2003),3 considering its appropriation and reinterpretation of Homer’s Odyssey. While not intending to suggest that this is the only source with which Harris is engaging, or by which he is motivated, the Odyssey will be seen to play a crucial role in the (p.182) novel. Importantly, this relationship is not one of mimesis; as Wilson Harris has expounded, it is not a matter of imitating an original. Rather, the works are created not in different times but in different spaces: ‘We arrive backwards even as we voyage forwards. This is the phenomenon of simultaneity in the imagination of times past and future … ’4
This theory has much in common with Derek Walcott’s in ‘The Muse of History’ in which temporal distance between European antiquity and Caribbean modernity is denied, to be replaced by simultaneity.5 This perspective on a modern postcolonial relationship with the Western canon is not the only area in which commonalities between Walcott and Harris can be found: their personal epistemologies also have certain central elements in common, particularly regarding the attribution of blame for historical wrongs of oppression and exploitation. In addition, both have discussed their own very diverse and multiple ethnic backgrounds, and I will argue that Walcott was directly influenced by an early and little-known drama of Harris’s when he came to write Omeros. As well as engaging with Wilson Harris’s underlying philosophy and his emphasis on building cross-cultural bridges, I will consider the role that his trope of the beggar’s mask performs within the novel and relate it to Odysseus’s humble disguise on Ithaca; I will explicate his use of a Cyclopean motif; and I will discuss how his work engages with, and contests, Bakhtin’s theories of polyphony and the novel.
Wilson Harris is a highly discursive writer and The Mask of the Beggar is no exception to this. The titular reference to the lowly disguise adopted by Odysseus when he finally returned home to Ithaca is a motif that resonates throughout the narrative. The protagonist of the novel is the Artist, whose mother narrates the first four chapters; the opening sequence is an account of the Artist’s childhood encounter with a beggar on the street, and the psychological consequences of this on him when he returns home. Later, when the Artist is an adult, and his mother has long since died, his own portrait of the Beggar persuades him to visit the home of his youth. To his shock, he discovers that it has been turned into a prison (p.101), in which a drug-addicted woman, Lazarus, and the illegal immigrant Beggar are all being held.
(p.183) His house now a prison, it is inhabited not only by these ‘criminals’ with whom the Artist has great sympathy, but also by the guards. The ‘Cyclopean gaoler’ is there, ruling the domain that used to be the Artist’s home: in his long absence, his home has come to be dominated by narrow-minded brutality, just as Odysseus’s was. The Ithacan suitors who have overrun Odysseus’s palace, with their greed and their disrespect, are evoked by Harris in his gaoler enforcing the oppression of others. This makes the link between the Cyclops and the suitors clear—which is of particular interest because though both are presented as lawless and uncouth in the Odyssey, Odysseus’s behaviour in Polyphemus’s cave is actually reminiscent of the suitors, as has been discussed earlier.6 Wilson Harris effectively rights the wrong that Odysseus did the Cyclops, in his response to it: his Odysseus, the Artist, does not abuse the Cyclops. For a postcolonial writer so concerned with man’s abuse of man, this response, though refreshing, is surprising.
As discussed in the Introduction, J. A. Froude’s use of the metaphor of the ‘bow of Ulysses’ to discuss Britain’s relationship with her Caribbean colonies at the end of the nineteenth century,7 contributed to the engagement with Homer’s epic by those writers who express anticolonial objections to the imperialism of Europe.8 Wilson Harris’s fascination with the Odyssey has been evident since his very earliest work: it is pervasive in many of the poems collected in Eternity to Season (1954), and most notably in the short play, ‘Canje’ included in that same publication. The collection opens with a selection of quotations, the first being from Homer’s Odyssey, and concerning Penelope’s famous trick of weaving and unravelling Laertes’ shroud. The poems include explorations of many figures from ancient Greek myth, including Hector, Agamemnon, Teiresias, Heracles, Antaeus, Achilles, Anticleia, and Calypso, as well as Odysseus himself.
The short play, ‘Canje’, was actually omitted by Harris in the second edition, published in 1978,9 along with sections from many of the other poems.10 Though there is no record of the play ever having been performed, indeed it could not stand independently as a (p.184) performance piece,11 it does contain many of the seeds that informed Harris’s writing of The Four Banks of the River of Space (1990).12 Moreover, it almost undoubtedly influenced Derek Walcott and his writing of Omeros: the play features the characters Ulysses, Teiresias, and Achilles, transmuted into a fisherman, a woodman, and a returned soldier and constable respectively. Harris’s Teiresias is even endowed with a stoop and ‘wears a resigned look from years of suffering under some complaint no doctor can cure.’13 More than three decades later, Walcott’s fisherman Philoctete has a wound, just as his Greek namesake had, but also like Harris’s character, the wound’s incurability seems to lie in more than its physical cause:
He believed the swelling came from the chained ankles of his grandfathers. Else why was there no cure? (Omeros III, iii, p. 19)
The imagery of a wound as the physical manifestation of the oppression and injustices of colonialism is an important postcolonial motif.14 It is one that we have seen Césaire employ in Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, when he refers to Martinique, ‘the ultimate, deceiving desolate bedsore on the wound of the waters’, to express both the damage inflicted on Martinique and the shame of its unsightliness as perceived by the assimilated narrator.15 Derek Walcott’s use of the wound motif in Omeros was discussed earlier;16 Ralph Ellison also evokes it, albeit briefly, when Brother Tarp acknowledges his limp to have a psychological, rather than physical, basis in his experience on a chain-gang.17
Wilson Harris’s short play contains an intricate engagement with classical epic and does more than merely cast some Homeric figures in a Guyanan setting, as A. J. Seymour seems to suggest in his 1954 introduction to the collection: ‘The Greek characters now stalk on the Guiana stage and play out their parts under the aegis of their immortal counterparts in history and literature.’18 To perceive the play thus is to fail to appreciate the work as a new drama. Unintentionally presumably, Seymour deprives Harris of his (p.185) creative genius, even of his original authorship of ‘Canje’, as if the play should be prefaced with a semi-apologetic, ‘Based on Homer’. He fails to perceive the engagement with the political situation in which Wilson Harris and his nation find themselves, which is enacted by Harris’s engagement with Homer, one of the very texts that British Guiana’s colonial rulers had used to oppress its imperial subjects. At the same time, Seymour is not wholly wrong: the Homeric precedent does provide Harris with the opportunity to demonstrate the strength of the cross-cultural bridges that he will continue to advocate throughout his career.
Another striking feature of ‘Canje’ is the extended nekuian motif, which will be shown to be critical to Harris’s postcolonial ethos and which exemplifies Gregson Davis’s argument that, for the anticolonial and postcolonial writer, the nostos can be a katabasis, and the oppressive colonial reality of ‘home’ can render it an underworld and a kind of ‘living death’.19 The pervasive use of the motif of katabasis within the play responds to the colonial situation in which British Guiana and Harris himself still find themselves after the Second World War. As an anticolonial motif it is particularly powerful and has been deployed to impressive effect by Césaire, Ellison, and Walcott, as we have already seen.
The character of Ulysses in ‘Canje’ narrowly escaped drowning and cannot be seen by the locals milling around him, until Teiresias advises him, ‘Give them wine and they will remember you’, just as in the Odyssey he instructed Odysseus to let the ghosts of the Underworld drink the sacrificial blood before they would be able to recognize him. In this play it is Ulysses who is ghost-like, rather than the characters who do not see him being wraiths, yet those characters disappear off in a manner reminiscent of the crowds of ghosts that Odysseus glimpses in the Underworld.20 In addition, the substitution of wine for blood has strong Judaeo-Christian symbolism in keeping with the modern (rather than Homeric) age in which Harris’s drama is set, and more importantly, with the religion that was imposed upon Guyana by its colonial rulers.
When Ulysses encounters an Achilles who laments his old age and the passing of his martial youth, the Odyssean precedent is (p.186) unmistakeable. This Achilles, though he has achieved the long life that the Homeric Achilles regrets having missed, nevertheless is not living the charmed and peaceful existence envisaged by his regretful namesake.
Further overturning the Homeric expectation, Harris’s Ulysses never knew his father; this is a recurring theme in Harris’s work, which will arise once more in The Mask of the Beggar. The Guyanan Ulysses of ‘Canje’ is cast in the position that threatens Telemachus throughout so much of the Odyssey, until his father has safely returned to Ithaca and successfully reclaimed his role there as king. However, far from presenting a hopeless perspective on such loss, Harris depicts an answer: in ‘Canje’, Ulysses can function as a reincarnation of the fishmonger’s drowned son, and Achilles, a veteran of the First World War battles in Egypt that claimed the life of Ulysses’s father, can be a reincarnation of Ulysses’s father.21 This positive outcome can only be achieved by the flexible notions of time announced in the title of Eternity to Season and explored throughout so much of that volume. These allusions enable Harris to appropriate the ancient text in a way that refuses, by its recasting of characters and events, to be slavish or constrained by the Homeric precedent.
Even more closely related to the themes that Wilson Harris returns to in The Mask of the Beggar is his inclusion of the motif of the beggarly disguise of the noble. He originally engaged with this in his very short poem, ‘The Beggar is King (Vindication of Earth)’, though when he revised the collection for the 1978 edition Harris placed this verse into ‘Home (the glorious children of the gods)’, thereby adding emphasis to the connection with Homer’s Odyssey and the quest for home. The lines, ‘To find/a home where to be noble is just, to be beggar is king’ (p. 35) interact with the second half of the Odyssey, recalling the beggar-king that is the disguised Odysseus, while simultaneously interrogating the meaning of ‘noble’: whether this is the nobility instilled by socio-economic privilege, or the nobility of moral goodness is left open.
The beggar that the young boy encounters at the start of The Mask of the Beggar becomes the catalyst for the rest of the novel. Intuitively, the boy associates the beggar with his lost father, thus aligning himself with Telemachus and the beggar with Odysseus. This moment in the (p.187) novel is heavily autobiographical, as revealed by Harris’s ‘An Autobiographical Essay’,22 in which he writes of having been disturbed by meeting a beggar when he was eight years old. For Wilson Harris, too, that encounter was linked to the loss of his own father—an event which may have provoked his persistent interest in Homer’s Odyssey. In keeping with, or perhaps as one of the roots of Harris’s interest in duality, he had two father figures. The first, his biological father, died when he was just a toddler, and his memories are correspondingly hazy, though Harris found a link back to this man through his possessions that were kept stored in a chest, including copies of the Iliad and Odyssey and a carved wooden horse which reminds him of the Trojan Horse. His second father-figure, whom he writes of with a sense of great closeness, was his step-father, who disappeared (assumed drowned) when Harris was only eight years old. The double loss of a father must have been profound, and the uncertainty of the latter loss is voiced by the boy of The Mask of the Beggar, who cannot rule out the possibility that this father will return. He asks his mother:
‘Do you think,’ he cried in a voice like a line of paint, ‘that it could be the startling return of my father from the ocean of the forest where he was lost?’ (p. 3)
The boy, like Telemachus, is perpetually looking out for the return of a father lost in a wilderness that is beyond his experience, but increasingly pushed to accept that this would be ‘startling’ and that the wanderer must be dead.
However, the primary attraction of the Odyssey for Wilson Harris is not in the exploration of father-son relationships and absent father figures. Though this is of importance to him, to focus on it exclusively creates a danger of detracting from his fundamental philosophical exposition at the heart of this novel, and his work as a whole, which is much more macropolitical and less individual and psychological, since it is to build cross-cultural bridges between peoples rather than allow the perpetuation of divisive blame-attribution. His canvas is a broad global and historical one; his subjectivity constantly expands to represent the vision of a world citizen. His diverse ethnicity may contribute to his non-judgemental political perspective and the philosophical stance that he has developed. As Harris has (p.188) explained, his own biological lineage is mixed: his father was of ‘mixed blood’, but having lost touch with his paternal relatives, that side of his family tree ‘remains obscure’; meanwhile, his maternal grandmother was half-Arawak (an indigenous people of the West Indies and South America), half-European, and his maternal grandfather half-Scottish and half-African.23 Thus Harris’s own racial background, like Derek Walcott’s, is so multiple that to condemn the imperial actions of one race would require him to condemn a part of his own background, often in defence of another part of himself. This may have led Wilson Harris towards his perception of the futility of such judgements, so that he adopts a stance that is remarkable in its refusal to condemn.
Yet Harris believes that even without this ethnic diversity he would still have adopted the same perspective, possibly because such diversity is quite common in South America:
I perceive my antecedents within dimensions of dual and multiple theatre. In other words, even if they were not my biological folk – or if I were in pure (so to speak) lineal descent from one or the other ethnic ancestor – I would still claim them all within a descent of the imagination that links the animality of the painter Titian to the scored visage of a sculpted Benin priest or to a pre-Columbian Arawak/Carib infant.24
Harris does not, as he explains, only feel affinity with the races with whom he is biologically linked, but with any number of races—it is humanity that is crucial for him: not the divisions between races, but the connections. Harris is keen to expose the common traits, experiences, and reactions that make us human, to focus on the shared qualities between peoples, rather than perpetuate expressions of antagonism and division. As Ashcroft et al. note, Harris is working away from the polarities of European thinking towards ‘a future community in which division and categorization are no longer the bases of perception’.25 This leads him to the extraordinary perception of a two-way dialectic between oppressors and oppressed, which is crystallized in the eponymous mask of the novel.
The Mask of the Beggar is a complex, multilayered work. Wilson Harris’s disruption of ‘normal’ notions of time can add to the difficult (p.189) intricacy of his work, but is an important facet of his determination to free oppressed cultures from the dialectic of history that has been imposed by imperialist Europe. His use of sometimes puzzling language is another part of this same process: he is formulating a new language that can express a novel way of viewing the world, one in which the past, present, and future are mixed together, as are imperial cultures and those they subjugated.26 Thus these modes of writing are integral to his postcolonial project. He embraces myths of various cultures, most clearly those of ancient Greece and Homer, and of the pre-Columbian Americas.27 He mixes these together, the Western canon with the much-forgotten pre-Columbian world, giving them equal weight. The connections he sees between the myths are also there between the peoples, and it is these relationships and recognition of the common elements between them, which can help undermine the polarized version of history that the European colonizing nations have sought to impose. The range of postcolonial responses elicited by Homer’s Odyssey varies widely; in Harris, there is a remarkably calm, unresentful reaction, but one that is nevertheless equally adamant that nations that have previously been colonially oppressed must now be appreciated for their equal worth. ‘The mask of the beggar’ may refer to Odysseus’s disguise as Harris states in the introductory Note,28 but it is a mask that is utilized by many others seeking their homes, attempting to assert their identities; it becomes a disguise for all and a ground from which any may emerge.
Identified with the beggar whom the young boy encounters is not just the boy’s lost father, but people of all races; the mask personifies the bridges of cross-culturality that Wilson Harris is advocating be built, as well as marking the dialectic between oppressor and oppressed. From this beggarly mask the immigrants of the story emerge, just as the mother of the Artist tells him that the figures of Odysseus’s men were secreted in the hero’s beggarly disguise:
He arrived at long last disguised as a Beggar. His crew, who had been lost or drowned, were alien and invisible then. But did they not lurk in the holes and crevices of his mask? (p. 4)
(p.190) The holes and cracks of this mask give the space from which the forgotten and neglected people of all eras can emerge. The mask is Odysseus’s, but is also pre-Columbian; this encapsulation of interculturalism leads the mother to see all those who have oppressed and been oppressed within the mask:
No wonder the Beggar, in one shape or form, endures. Is he the victor disguised? Does he not encompass victims who appear to be conquered or lost or dead? (pp. 4–5)
Harris’s refusal to apportion blame to Europe for its imperialistic behaviour since the time of Christopher Columbus,29 his levelling of the oppressed and the oppressors, is in stark contrast with the views of some of his Caribbean contemporaries such as Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon.30 Harris is interested in the colonialism of all races at any time, and points out that the Carib conquest of the West Indies occurred before the European conquest.31 Like Derek Walcott in Achille’s hallucinatory nekuia in Omeros, Wilson Harris is keen to demonstrate that a wider range of peoples than is usually thought, have been colonizers at one time or another, and that all ethnic groups are in fact capable of oppressing others. Colonialism is not a European invention, the Caribs colonized Guyana long before the Europeans did, and they are likely to have done so, this passage from The Mask of the Beggar implies, in just the same barbaric way as later colonizers did. Harris reveals that it is a matter of perception: when constructing history, a choice is made regarding which elements to focus on and what perspective to adopt: history is not objective, fixed or singular.
The oppression of peoples horrifies Wilson Harris, but attribution of blame does not seem to interest him. Just before his visit to his childhood home, the Artist has spoken passionately of the suffering of Native Americans:
(p.191) The atrocities perpetrated on Native Americans were dismissed as though they never occurred: atrocities perhaps worse than the Holocaust. Four hundred treaties were signed with Native Americans. All were broken … As far as the Natives of North America go, we know that in 1924 fewer than a quarter of a million – out of seven to eighteen million [in 1492] – remained. Their ancestors had been slaughtered, victimized, starved, across the centuries, vacant centuries that carry the life-blood of Timelessness. (p. 98)
His compassion is directed towards those who have suffered, rather than towards the perpetrators, as underlined by his use of the passive voice throughout, thereby concealing the agent of such destructive and horrific actions. However, Harris does go so far as to reserve a modicum of pity for the oppressors of races who are blind, just as the ‘Cyclopean guard’ is, suggesting that all mankind, regardless of race, is imprisoned in the gaol that history has constructed for us.
The violent domination of one culture over another, and the devastation that inevitably follows is attested to in The Mask of the Beggar. The destruction of the ancient pre-Columbian civilizations is a pervasive theme throughout much of Wilson Harris’s work and bears resemblances to the Greek sacking of Troy. As Hena Maes-Jelinek writes, regarding Harris’s first novel, The Palace of the Peacock:
Although the jungle and rivers of Guyana can hardly conjure up devastated Troy, there is an implicit comparison between the destruction of ancient civilizations and the disappearance of entire populations in Asia Minor and pre-Columbian America.32
While Harris is advocating an awareness of the universalism of our societies (that this violent devastation has been enacted by different peoples in different places throughout all eras), he does not sacrifice the specifically Guyanan features of his works in order to appeal to a ‘universal audience’—itself a common euphemism for a dominant European audience. Rather, he is compelling ‘universalism’ to take on a new, truer meaning that includes Africa, Asia, and the Americas as well as Europe. Harris has explained:
Cross-culturality differs radically from multiculturality. There is no creative and re-creative sharing of dimensions in multiculturality. The strongest culture in multiculturality holds an umbrella over the rest, (p.192) which have no alternative but to abide by the values that the strongest believe to be universal. Cross-culturality is an opening to a true and variant universality of a blend of parts we can never wholly encompass, though when we become aware of them we may ceaselessly strive for an open unity that they offer. In this quantum way we may forestall the tyranny of one-sided being.33
Wilson Harris is enforcing a move beyond the type of ‘universalism’ to which many African writers objected in the 1960s and 1970s, not least Chinua Achebe who saw it as ‘a synonym for the narrow, self-serving parochialism of Europe’.34 I would suggest that Harris’s evident belief in a universal strain present in humanity the world over is an argument in favour of just the very progress that Achebe goes on to hope for: that is, Harris is demanding that the time has come for ‘universalism’ to be reconstructed, to equally value and reflect Africa, the Americas, and Europe. It is interesting to consider the theatre director Jatinder Verma’s views on the issue of universalism in tandem with Wilson Harris’s; the two are in close alignment, though Verma continues to perceive a Eurocentric bias in some areas:
In the current era of globalisation, one could say that there is indeed a greater degree of currency in the term ‘universal’. [ … ] However, it seems to me that there is a counter-current, and that’s where Achebe’s comments are still relevant. The counter-current is that there are other cultures which are still dominated by essentially a Eurocentric outlook on life.35
The appearance of the immigrants through the holes in the beggar’s mask signals the universality of the image that Wilson Harris is evoking. Odysseus’s disguise may have been the original, but through the cracks and the holes in it, other people emerge; people who, like Odysseus when he first returns to Ithaca, are judged solely by their outward appearance, who are denigrated, ill-treated, and ignored on the grounds of their perceivable economically straitened circumstances. Just as Odysseus’s disguise is stripped off to reveal his underlying heroism and nobility, so the implication is that these (p.193) immigrants, too, must be viewed not merely on the basis of their external appearance.
Aligning these immigrants with Odysseus, the parallel may appear to be purely positive at first glance: the valuable essence of the immigrants is masked by their humble status just as the heroic Odysseus remained hidden beneath his beggar’s disguise. Where the prison guard sees a drug addict, for example, the Artist of the novel sees a reclining woman of the pre-Columbian sculptures.36 This is a type of ‘recognition’ in which external signs do not hinder the perception of the true self, unlike in Sommersby where outward appearances are revealed to be deceptive on the level of the individual; yet on the level of the community this same motif of the meaninglessness of appearances enables the more peaceful integration of the black and white communities, now able to work together. In a sense, it is discrimination on the grounds of appearance, and specifically of colour, that the works examined in this volume all engage with and protest against.37
However, there are two further facets to this identification of the immigrants with the disguised Odysseus that problematize the notion: firstly, the imperialistic nature of the hero Odysseus cannot be ignored; secondly, the nobility that Harris perceives in the beggars, drug addicts, and poverty-stricken immigrants is evident throughout the novel, suggesting that to retain this ‘mask’ is to hold on to one’s more worthy, even transcendental, nature. This could be seen as Harris’s response to the start of Book 22 of Homer’s Odyssey: although the heroic Odysseus emerges when he throws his rags to the floor, his transformation is not entirely favourable. He reclaims his status as king of Ithaca, and as the heroic Odysseus, but his behaviour is that of a lawless brute. Wilson Harris and Derek Walcott exhibit a compatibility in their responses to this, both refusing to endorse Odysseus’s violence, which is approved by the gods in Homer’s epic. Just as Walcott’s Penelope prevents the hanging of the maidservants,38 so Wilson Harris has said, ‘One accepts the necessity to slay (p.194) the suitors but the hanging of the serving women filled me with dread as a child when I read Homer’.39
Odysseus ‘regresses’ to an old-style hero at this stage of Homer’s epic. Whereas throughout the Iliad and the Odyssey, he has been known as a man more skilled at thinking and speaking than at violence—a distinction made most definitively later, in Sophocles’ Ajax where the new style of heroism is rewarded more than the old—in Book 22 his fury propels him to use force rather than cunning. The brutality of this is epitomized in his order that the traitorous maidservants be killed. However, it is important to note that it is Telemachus, not Odysseus, who devises the particularly grisly means of their deaths, and possibly even of Melanthius’s, despite Stanford’s hope to the contrary.40 Thus the margin and dialectic between oppressed and oppressor, signified by the mask of the beggar, may be as easy to cross as the casting off of Odysseus’s rags (Od.22.1).
To forget a person’s origins is to lose sight of a part of their humanity—the projection of one’s identity is integral to the ability to impress one’s humanity onto narrow-minded oppressors. A sense of this underlies much of the postcolonial use of classical texts: while infantilization, even animalization, of the oppressed has frequently been a feature of imperial discourse,41 the need to assert one’s own humanity has troubled the subjugated as they emerge to freedom. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man expresses this in a moving epiphany:
Once I thought my grandfather incapable of thoughts about humanity, but I was wrong. Why should an old slave use such a phrase as, “This and this and this has made me more human,” as I did in my arena speech? Hell, he never had any doubts about his humanity – that was left to his “free” offspring.42
The loss of compassion to which Harris has referred springs in part from a forgetting of, a blindness towards, people’s roots: ‘One imprisons a body and does not see where it comes from’ (p. 110).
(p.195) The Artist of the novel feels a connection with the drug-addicted woman that strikes him as miraculous and as signifying a relationship between individuals and between peoples, that has been extremely hard to achieve for colonial powers:
She and I had gained an intimate relationship across the great distances – that seem small as a stone or a pinprick in the Sky – dividing man from man. A miraculous relationship. Such miracles were possible but they required unpredictable voyages beyond static traditions, an unpredictability – save in furies of violence – that was lacking, it seemed, in dominant cultures. (p. 106)
These ‘unpredictable voyages beyond static traditions’ are not only in terms of the cultural boundaries separating people from one another, which Harris is so determined to bridge, but also in artistic terms. He aims to extend the boundaries of art, to question ‘static traditions’ of genre and style and in doing so, to break them down in a manner that will echo the breaking down of ethnic boundaries. Art itself as a means by which the bridges of cross-culturality can be built, can provide a way to ‘cross the chasms’ that Harris feels is so crucial in the present era. If the artist allows ‘freedom of character’ to his creations, placing himself on a level with his creations by a true polyphony, then he demonstrates a means by which domination can be done away with.
The Artist considers languages to be ‘cells of a blind gaoler’ (p. 106), noting that ‘Latin is a cell on which many a boot still claims to rule the world’ (p. 107). This reference to the European habit of imposing the classical languages on the education systems of the countries they ruled,43 also notes the violence of the domination—‘a boot’ that rules the world suggests that it tramples others underneath it. Simultaneously, it may recall the fateful moment in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon when Clytemnestra persuades her newly returned husband to commit an act of hubris and disrespect towards the gods by taking off his boots and walking on the tapestries designed only to be (p.196) used to honour the gods (Agamemnon 904–949). This allusion is soon re-enforced by discussion of ‘a universe of furies’:
One forgets the borderlines between Body and Spirit. To fail to remember these is to condition oneself into a loss of origins in a universe of furies. Fury becomes an absolute. Each body is an illusory eternity and there is no modulation of the furies. One imprisons a body and does not see where it comes from. One loses all compassion and inflicts violence upon it. This Cyclopean blindness rules the world as it did in Homer’s age. (p. 110)
These ‘furies’ evoke not just unleashed disorder, but the ancient Greek furies who pursued those who had committed a sin. Wilson Harris has, as he explained in a speech in 1996, ‘been intuitively involved in an imagination of the Furies—their protean shapes and configurations—for some considerable time.’44 The most extensive depiction of these deities in ancient Greek literature is in Aeschylus’s Eumenides, where the Furies transform themselves into figures of justice and become an integral part of the founding of the laws of the city and society as a whole. This ktistic transformation has not occurred in Harris’s vision of the world, where ‘there is no modulation of the furies’—they are still threatening and frightening beings. Nevertheless, Wilson Harris believes that the Furies have ‘regenerative potential’,45 and it may be in this that he sees their primary importance: more as ‘Eumenides’ than ‘Furies’. The world into which Harris visualizes us descending is one in which origins have been lost, and the distinction between the Body and the Spirit has become blurred; in this place, the precivilized Furies rule. Pre-Columbian art and culture has been given prominence in the novel so far, culminating in the personification of the picture in the artist’s book, Before Cortez and Pizarro, ‘A reclining woman, 600 BC, Ancient Mexico’ (p. 95). Wilson Harris exposes the culture that existed long before the European invasion to draw attention to the fact that, contrary to common colonial expectation and belief, pre-Columbian America had a civilization and artistry of its own.
Some writers have overturned the use of language as a tool of oppression by mastering it for themselves; Eric Williams, the first prime minister of the independent Trinidad and Tobago, writes in his autobiography of his pride in surpassing all his Oxford (p.197) contemporaries in his grasp of Latin,46 and Emily Greenwood notes that Williams’s retelling of this episode is in line with a Caribbean literary motif whereby classics becomes the battleground for political and cultural independence.47 Other writers have had less interest in the classical languages themselves, but have still enacted the same form of powerful appropriation, in what Helen Tiffin has termed ‘canonical counter-discourse’48 by reworking, regenerating works of the Western canon to such an extent that they speak for them at least as powerfully as they spoke for the colonists, and they contribute to the construction of postcolonial identities and literatures.
The dialectic between oppressor and oppressed comes out most sharply in the figure of the Cyclops. Odysseus’s encounter with Polyphemus is one of the most memorable episodes in the Odyssey and is consistently proving to be of intense interest to postcolonial writers who respond to Homer’s epic, as we have already seen. Wilson Harris, like Ralph Ellison, follows the more traditional depiction of a Polyphemus-figure as brutish and bullying, but his innovation lies in the fact that he has withdrawn the issue of race from the equation. Homer himself did not, contrary to many translations, describe the Cyclops as a monster.49 However, the emphasized ‘otherness’ of the Cyclopes, who are not only physically different, with their great size and their one round eye,50 but uncivilized too, without agriculture, legal assemblies, or community ties (Od. 9.106–115) has enabled interpretations that have been construed in racial terms. Homer though, casts doubt on this final element of the Cyclopes’ social bonds when the other Cyclopes run to help Polyphemus, and hence, one could suggest, other elements of Odysseus’s retelling of the story must also be questioned. This fact is frequently overlooked: the natural focalization of Odysseus who is ensuring his own kleos by this narration must influence the depiction of himself and others in Books 9–12 of the Odyssey. Alfred Heubeck and Arie Hoekstra take Odysseus’s claims regarding the lives of the Cyclopes as fact, within the myth of the Odyssey, and more surprising, given the late date of their (p.198) commentary, they also fully embrace the negative racial depiction of the Cyclopes:
We are not, therefore, surprised that this race [Cyclopes], the embodiment of inhumanity, is endowed with non-human characteristics and is capable of acts of extreme barbarity. Polyphemus himself is more beast than man.51
Some other commentators have expressed more sympathy for Polyphemus: for example, Irene De Jong views his depiction as ‘ambivalent’, as both an uncivilized monster and later as a pitiful figure who exhibits tenderness when addressing his favourite ram.52
Rather than employing a Cyclops-figure as such, Harris has a ‘Cyclopean’ gaoler. The use of the adjective could be seen to demonstrate that his ‘Cyclopean-ness’ is only one element of the gaoler: he is not a Cyclops, though he does exhibit Cyclopean traits. The Cyclops’s great power and strength are formidable, but most distinctive of all is his single eye. While Homer focuses on this more as a form of his hideous difference (humans should, of course, have two eyes; to have only one sets the Cyclops in the world of the fantastic) than as actually impairing his vision, postcolonial writers have made fruitful use of the limited vision this implies, which was first expounded by Immanuel Kant. Kant made a distinction between the sensus privatus and the sensus communis; the former refers to views that are formed solely by narrow, solitary experience, and was labelled ‘Cyclopean thinking’ by Kant, while the latter refers to common sense, built up by living in a community and interacting with other people and their ideas.53 Physically, one eye would prevent full peripheral vision; metaphorically it suggests narrow-mindedness, a lack of intellectual vision. Ellison’s Invisible Man says to the one-eyed Cyclopean Brother Jack, ‘maybe you’ll recommend me to your oculist … then I may not-see myself as others see-me-not’;54 Walcott’s Odysseus in The Odyssey: A Stage Version tells the Cyclops that mortals need two eyes ‘For balance. Proportion. Contrast. … Left, right. Good, bad. Heaven, hell.’55 Césaire’s Cyclops, on the other hand, (p.199) prompts the protagonist to look at his homeland and himself with fresh eyes, so while the Cyclops-figure is himself visually impaired, he is the catalyst for greater understanding in another.
Wilson Harris’s ‘Cyclopean gaoler’ encapsulates many contradictory elements. Harris is undoubtedly fond of exposing what he perceives as the conflicting parts that make up any whole. The Artist can both feel distant from the ‘Cyclopean gaoler’ (p. 106) and see him in himself (p. 113); ‘Cyclopean blindness’ can rule the world with violence (p. 110) and also be ‘impossibly innocent’ (p. 115); the innocence of the Cyclopean guard can be protective and reminiscent of home (p. 116), but he can also be so blind that his eyes are ‘a block to sensitive truth’ and he can recognize no affinity between himself and his prisoners (p. 108). In this we see not only Harris’s juxtaposition of contradictions, but also a commentary on the way the figure of the Cyclops has been responded to throughout the ages.
Typically of Wilson Harris, he is not interested in drawing up battle lines and apportioning characters on one side or the other. The Cyclopean guard and the figure of ‘Nobody’ encountered by the Artist in his childhood home, now converted into a jail, emerge and interact, helping the Artist understand himself and his creations. He enters the jail, and seeing a pregnant woman locked up, he is moved to want to help her; yet to his astonishment, she responds that it is she who will rescue him, rather than vice versa (p. 104). He is prompted to begin questioning his own identity: ‘Was I a prisoner groping to understand who I was, where I had come from?’ (p. 108).
The Artist sees himself as the prisoner of the guard, as the Odysseus figure in the Cyclops’s cave. He knows that Odysseus escaped by abandoning his identity, by embracing his status as ‘No Man’, and this thought leads him to wonder whether the Cyclops still has influence in the contemporary era: ‘Did the blindness of the Cyclops signify a condition that bore on the present day?’ (p. 108). This blindness is exposed in the many areas related to imperialism which may still attempt to oppress different peoples, as well as in terms of man’s violence towards man.
Meanwhile the ‘Cyclopean guard’ does everything in his power to assert his authority and superiority. He does this in a way that once again echoes the Homeric Odysseus’s successful tricking of Polyphemus: just as Odysseus denied his name and assumed the form of ‘No Man’ in the Cyclops’s cave, compelling Polyphemus to label him wrongly, so too this Cyclopean guard is keen to name and label (p.200) people, but does so blindly and mistakenly. To the guard, the prisoners are a drug addict, an illegal immigrant, and a trespasser. The Artist, however, sees them differently: as the pre-Columbian reclining woman he had seen depicted in a book, as beggar, and as a Lazarus-figure. The gaoler’s inability to see these figures as anything other than by their surface appearance is an instance of Kantian ‘Cyclopean thinking’.56
Surprisingly, the Cyclops himself is linked to the search for home. Within the Cyclopean guard’s innocence, the Artist perceives a reminiscence of home: ‘The innocence of a Cyclopean guard is a tracery of wished-for, longed-for protection one had hoped for in an eternity one called home’ (p. 116). Despite his blindness, despite his role as an oppressor, the guard of the prisoners, this Cyclopean figure is also an element of home. The description of home as an eternity suggests an attainment of the eventual nostos that is achieved in death, and so the inclusion of the Cyclops within this suggests a leveling of evils and virtues within death, a utopian peacefulness in which the divisions of oppressors and subdued become meaningless. The quest for a utopian ideal is another recurrent theme of Harris’s literature; Palace of the Peacock and Carnival, among others, involve a search for the paradise of El Dorado.
There is a further way in which Wilson Harris engages with the Odyssean theme of nostos in The Mask of the Beggar. It has already been seen to be employed in the sense of death being a final homecoming, as well as in the search for El Dorado, whether in life or after it, and has been a pervasive theme throughout much of Wilson Harris’s work.57 In The Mask of the Beggar there are two further ways in which it is utilized and explored: not only does the Artist return to his childhood home to find that it has been transformed into a prison in his absence, and it is here that he begins to reach an understanding of himself and his artistry; but Wilson Harris, as a self-exiled Guyanan who is repeatedly and consistently engaged by the (p.201) country of his birth rather than the country of his adoption, is in a sense returning home to Guyana through his writing.
Wilson Harris forges a problematic connection between the Artist and Odysseus in his ‘Nobody’ disguise. The Artist is searching for his identity under the gaze of the ‘Cyclopean guard’,58 and in this sense, the Odyssean nostos is being played out in the Artist’s, and Harris’s, artistic journeys. Harris is exploring the extent to which he can efface his ‘self’ from his text, as he aligns himself with the ‘Nobody’ figure: ‘Nobody was there. I was there.’ (p. 111). However, given that the role of art and artists has been shown to be so central to Harris’s epistemology, and their ability to alter people’s perceptions in positive ways has been espoused, this effacement of the creative figure is troublesome, and complicates an otherwise clear argument.
Nevertheless, it should not detract from Harris’s central argument to the extent that some critics have allowed it to, and the theme raises interesting issues of its own. As the Artist sees himself as ‘Nobody’, he also begins to muse on a relationship between Lazarus and Odysseus, between ‘Faceless’ and ‘Nobody’, and considers them to be cousins. The clearest connection between these two mythical figures is that both emerged alive out of death: in the New Testament, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is recounted, while in Book 11 of the Odyssey, Odysseus visits the Underworld and leaves it again to continue on his journey homewards. Wilson Harris has been fascinated with the notion of a life lived after death (in a non-religious sense) since his very first novel, The Palace of the Peacock, in which the characters can suffer multiple deaths, in a partial recreation of the Carib resurrection myth that conceives of life and death as being points in a continuous cycle.
Beyond this, there is also the notion that both figures lose their individuality as ‘Faceless’ and ‘Nobody’, and yet this is what saves them. Lazarus is a captive in the prison that the Artist visits, and for the ‘Cyclopean guard’ this is all that he is. Yet the Artist sees that he is much more than the ‘trespasser’ that he is labelled as: ‘He had brought unwelcome news of a past—that no one desired to contemplate—into the present’ (p. 99).
The nondescript nature of Lazurus’s face (p. 111), which induces the Artist to name him ‘Faceless’, is a mask (p. 112) just as the (p.202) beggar’s disguise is also a mask. Yet this lack of definition and identity, is in the eyes of the beholder, as Lazarus teaches the Artist. Man’s carelessness with nature, which has led to the extinction and endangerment of so many species, is due to his perception that the Earth is similarly undefined and nondescript: ‘It [the Earth] is faceless to a humanity that sees nothing but what justifies its inordinate lusts and pleasures’ (p. 112).
This links back to the eponymous theme of the novel: masks, and who is able to see beyond them, who creates them. Responsibility for seeing masks on all these people is apportioned to the spectator, as if it is in the act of looking that this veil of disguise is added. The ‘Cyclopean guard’ adds the mask of a drug addict to the woman in prison; the Artist adds the mask of ‘Faceless’ to Lazarus, and the disguise of the pre-Columbian reclining woman to the female prisoner, as well as the mask of ‘Nobody’ to himself. As he himself says to Lazarus, pointing out that perception is in the eye of the beholder, ‘Some may see you but the majority will dismiss you as a myth or as an hallucination’ (p. 114). This notion that myths are as arbitrary as hallucinations in the minds of ‘the majority’ relates to the blindness of the Cyclopean guard, who may himself merely be a part of ‘the majority’: his blindness is shared by much of society, who cannot see beyond their initial impression of, for example, the drug-addicted woman or the ‘dangerous trespasser’ Lazarus. They refuse to look beyond and within to identify the truer character that Harris depicts within these figures, and that the Artist comes to recognize.
The question of who is creating whom is posed throughout the novel and this aspect too has a Homeric precedent. The ancient Greek obsession with kleos relied on professional storytellers: without the bards to tell of their exploits, nobody would hear of their heroism, and thus their fame would fade away. Achilles’ renowned choice of everlasting kleos over a long and unremarkable life reveals its importance. Thus the bards are respected figures in the Homeric world, and the ability to tell a story (as Odysseus is able to do) is generally greatly admired.59 What Wilson Harris is advocating is a new responsibility on the part of contemporary artists. Just as artworks have contributed to racism within societies, it is now time for them to work against this (p.203) and play a part in the drive towards peaceful cross-culturality within society.
The first part of The Mask of the Beggar is narrated from the perspective of the Artist’s mother (of whom the question is raised that she may be, in part, her son’s creation). The Artist has trouble distinguishing between those who he himself has created, figures who are figments of his imagination sometimes made solid in his work, and real, living independent people. This very question is outlined by Harris in the introductory note that precedes the novel:
The artist is dumbfounded when he meets someone in the Street, who appears to be a Carnival dancer, and who is an exact, living copy of a sculpture in his studio that he calls the Mother of Space. This is crucial and leads to the arrival of other living copies of sculptures he has created, or has hidden, in his studio. Some have sprung from figurines or miniatures that he keeps hidden in his notebooks, out of guilt perhaps, and this is part of his Dream in meeting real people: that they have come to life from neglected resources in the closed Imaginations of the world that hide them in the archives of history. (viii)
The process whereby artworks and visual experiences of the material world have interacted with our mental images, and affected history as a result, suggests that if perceptions are altered, then history can be moved towards the utopia that so much of Harris’s work seems to wish into existence. Wilson Harris is contributing to this transformation of perceptions through his writing: hence the sharp focus on that which connects people, never that which divides them; Harris is aiming to have a positive impact on his audience’s perceptions, an impact that pushes towards the realization of a utopian ideal.
Connected to this notion of the powerful effect that art can have on our wider perceptions, the novel also explores the commonly expressed notion that a created figure may have a life of its own beyond that with which it is endowed by the artist. This idea can be seen expressed in classical sources, such as the story of Pygmalion,60 as much as in today’s discussions with authors, who often describe their characters as ‘having a life of their own’. Again, Harris explains this in the introductory Note:
The artist or author does not have absolute control of his creations but is subject to being created afresh by the characters (or character-masks) he creates. In this way there is no final creation since finality is ceaselessly partial and is subject to profoundest alterations. (ix–x)
(p.204) The effect of this is, as Lorna Hardwick points out, to express the impact of Caribbean responses and rewritings of Homer and other Greek myths.61 One form of a story is not privileged over another, the Caribbean rewritings, the rewritings from any culture or era, all have their own weight; once again, Walcott’s ‘The Muse of History’ is important here. Thus Harris overcomes a problem of many Caribbean writers: how to square their use of the Western canon with their own passionate assertion of independence from that once-oppressive culture. Walcott’s claim that he never finished reading Homer,62 despite his own authorship of two works that explicitly respond to Homer, Omeros (1990) and The Odyssey: A Stage Version (1993), rings a little implausibly. He himself acknowledges this in Omeros, when the narrator proceeds to confess to Omeros that, ‘I have always heard your voice in that sea’ (LVI, iii, p. 283). Césaire rejects assimilation but asserts his own right to make use of whatever he can from the legacy of the French control of Martinique, including his education in European literature. In The Mask of the Beggar, Harris proclaims the equal rights of all these responses to contend with the original in a perpetual rewriting and re-visioning.
To return to the gaoler’s ‘Cyclopean’ nature once more: his ‘primitiveness’ is a sign of this nature, as he harks back to the classical, canonical genres with their monologic style, rather than embracing the polyphony that leads, for Mikhail Bakhtin, to a ‘development of the artistic thinking of mankind’63 and for Harris, towards the possibility of peaceful equality and acceptance between peoples. For Wilson Harris there is an additional reason why ‘polyphony’, or as he describes it, ‘multi-faceted images’, is so crucial, as he explained in an interview:
My contention is that when you have a giant character like Ulysses, who was living 600 years or more before Christ, that character as he comes down to us today cannot be played by any one individual or any one (p.205) culture. You need different actors, different cultures; you have to share the burden. And in sharing the burden, you enter into these multi-faceted images of which I speak.64
Thus multi-facetedness or polyphony is the best route towards the true cross-culturality that Harris advocates.
As the title of one of Wilson Harris’s earlier novels, The Infinite Rehearsal, indicates, he does not believe that each novel must stand alone, and the development of his ideas can be traced throughout his oeuvre.65 This notion reflects those pervasive themes of his work which we have seen: cross-culturality and the links between peoples; but it also exemplifies a central part of Bakhtin’s definition of the novel in opposition to epic: it is never complete, never fully whole or unchangeable.66 It is as Harris wrote: ‘there is no final creation since finality is ceaselessly partial and is subject to profoundest alterations’ (ix–x). Such a statement has reminiscences of feminist literary theorists’ use of the figure of Penelope as the weaver of a ‘text’ that was infinitely recreated,67 and also of Derrida’s theory of the eternal deferral of meaning in the act of interpretation.68 Within the very structure of Harris’s works then, as well as within his characters, the ‘unfinalizability’ of the self expounded by Bakhtin can be seen.
Even more dominant within Bakhtin’s theory of the novel is the concept of polyphony, whereby a multitude of voices or discourses all coexist in a mutual interdependence that insists that none are more authoritative than the others.69 It is this, for Bakhtin, that can set the novel apart from those other canonical genres of poetry, drama, and epic;70 and it is this that Wilson Harris has experimented with (p.206) throughout his work, which leads in The Mask of the Beggar to an explicit meta-narration, regarding the authority of the perspectives of the characters that the protagonist encounters. However, though Harris’s work is superficially polyphonic, this polyphony ultimately breaks down in favour of a monolithic vision in which individuals have no importance as individuals, and everyone is levelled with one another, and revealled to contain a multitude of disparate parts within themselves.
The central figure of The Mask of the Beggar is the Artist who narrates a large proportion of the novel. Yet this character is in no way a ‘privileged’ voice, he does not provide an authoritative perspective, and is aware of the fragile basis on which his own perceptions are based.71 This ties in with Bakhtin’s theory of polyphony whereby the author is repositioned to be among the characters he creates and equal to them, despite being their creator. As Bakhtin wrote in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics,
Dostoevsky [ … ] creates not voiceless slaves [ … ], but rather free people who are capable of standing beside their creator, of disagreeing with him, and even of rebelling against him.72
The ‘unfinalized’ self which Bakhtin proposed and with which Harris concurs, provides the conditions for polyphony because the characters of a polyphonic novel cannot be defined by others, because they can perceive and then defy those definitions. As Bakhtin explained, a character’s ‘self-consciousness lives on its unfinalizedness, its open-endedness and indeterminacy’.73
This polyphony structures Harris’s novel, thereby excluding an authoritative narratorial voice in favour of a number of voices, each flawed, puzzled, and wholly subjective. However, unlike the polyphony which Bakhtin identified in Dostoevsky’s work as being of ‘independent and unmerged voices’,74 the voices in Harris are so intermingled that it can be hard to distinguish one from another—a deliberate tactic on Harris’s part that compels the reader to abandon notions of the individual and share his prospective vision of the world (p.207) as a collective of inextricably entangled people capable of seeing and accepting the bonds between themselves.
Though the novel makes it clear who the primary narrator is at each moment, yet this ‘voice’ is not given primacy. In fact, the Artist himself becomes increasingly aware of his own subjective and flawed perception, and considers the narrations of others to have equal weight with his own. He may thereby be seen to reflect Wilson Harris as the author of the novel, who is himself corresponding to Dostoevsky’s style of privileging no single voice over another. However, in Harris’s work the voices are so fragile that they seem to merge with each other, and though Bakhtinian polyphony at first appears to be a useful tool to help unpick the different voices, it becomes evident that Harris’s unitary vision of human history is actually highly unpolyphonic. His unitary vision is that everything is and always has been in total flux and ‘infinite rehearsal’, so it is difficult to isolate strands and voices and give them the historic weight of ‘real’ people’s perspectives. There are multiple voices but paradoxically the vision is monolithic with no ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’—partly because he is not interested in individuals. In contrast, it is interesting to consider Anatoly Lunacharsky’s positive review of Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art (1929). As Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment at the time, Lunacharsky’s response helped reduce the severity of Bakhtin’s exile. He argued that polyphony was, in fact, positive in terms of the Marxist analysis of culture generally, and proclaimed that Bakhtin is right:
When he notes that all those ‘voices’ which play a truly important part in any of the novels represent distinct ‘convictions’ or ‘ways of looking at the world’. … And what is more these theories are active desires, they drive the characters to commit definite actions and provide the motive forces for distinct patterns of behaviour, individual and social. In a word, they are of a profoundly ethical and social nature …75
Lunacharsky goes on to suggest that Bakhtin’s subtlety can only assist the finesse of Marxist readings, with the voices coming from different sides in the social struggle.
Wilson Harris’s acute awareness of his own artistry, and his belief that through art the oppressive dialectic of colonizing nations may be thrown off, can be glimpsed in his style of constant rewritings, so that his novels are frequently intertwined. As he has said, ‘one novel may (p.208) pick up something in the fabric of a previous work and rehearse its implications anew’.76 This ties in closely with Bakhtin’s idea of the novel as the only literary genre which is not yet complete, which is still continuing to develop. For Bakhtin, this is in stark contrast to the epic, whose powerful sense of completion is accentuated by the epic distance which is integral to the genre, but which precludes change. This epic distance is one of three features that Bakhtin lists as characterizing epic in his essay ‘Epic and Novel’ (1941); the other two being related to nationhood (that epic’s subject is the nation’s past and its traditions). This could hint at one of Wilson Harris’s reasons for choosing to write novels, rather than epic: strong senses of nationhood are nearly always founded on a constructed sense of the ‘self’ and ‘the other’, and it is precisely this that Harris is working to break down. In aiming to build bridges of cross-culturality between nations, Harris deconstructs the divisions of ‘self’ and ‘other’ which are so often celebrated by epics. In The Mask of the Beggar this purpose is demonstrated in his response to the Cyclops of the Odyssey. Later literature has often continued the depiction of the Cyclopes as distinctly ‘other’, but in his work Harris is advocating a new mode of artistic endeavour that aims at peaceful harmony instead. This again illustrates the breakdown of Bakhtinian polyphony in favour of Harris’s monolithic vision. Unlike many twentieth-century responses to the Cyclops,77 Harris resists situating his Cyclopean-figure on either side of a good–evil dichotomy.
Wilson Harris’s advocacy of cross-culturality ties in integrally with his own adaptation of Bakhtin’s polyphony, which is incorporated into his monolithic vision of human history. In fact, Bakhtin’s description of Dostoevsky’s work could perhaps equally be applied to Harris:
From the point of view of a consistent monological vision and comprehension of the represented world and of the monological canon of novelistic construction, Dostoevsky’s world may appear to be chaotic, (p.209) and the construction of his novels a conglomerate of alien materials and incompatible principles of design. The profound organicism, consistency and unity of Dostoevsky’s poetics can become clear only in light of his basic artistic task.78
Harris is a difficult writer, but as Bakhtin suggests here of Dostoevsky, his work is given unity once his fundamental artistic and epistemological intention is perceived.
The Mask of the Beggar is a philosophical novel, as interested in the forms of its own artistry as in its narrative. The novel’s exploration of the nature of artistic creativity is a part of its dominant epistemological focus. Though there is an element of Umberto Eco’s famous declaration that ‘The Bible, the Iliad, and the Odyssey are nothing more than narrations’79 in Wilson Harris’s interest, his focus on artistry is primarily a feature of his epistemology. He investigates the way in which art can affect one’s perceptions: mental images are formed or reinforced by art, and so art can dialectically impact on reality by distorting one’s perceptions. If, prompted by artworks, we see people as dangerous, they become dangerous. This is true even if our perception, or the perception of the artist given form in his work, is wrong. The sophistication of this ethical standpoint, the understanding that nothing is ever merely black and white, right or wrong, stands in stark and deliberate contrast to the ending of the Odyssey. Homer’s Odyssey ends with the restoration of rightful order, achieved by the killing of all the suitors, who are indiscriminately slaughtered with no distinctions made between the utterly transgressive and those who were less so. Odysseus’s behaviour is condoned by the gods, who help him in the enactment of his revenge and defend him from the justifiable anger of the dead suitors’ relatives, ordering that no more blood be shed. Just as the mask of the novel’s title has been seen to mark the margin between the oppressors and the oppressed, and Harris’s implied criticism of Odysseus’s behaviour after he casts off his disguise has become apparent, so too here, Harris develops a more complex ethical charter which implicitly criticizes that of the Odyssey, but even more importantly, lays out a suggestion for a new model which art in the twentieth century could, and should, follow. Harris wants to make positive use of art’s ability to affect our mental processes and mould our perceptions. Other writers have (p.210) contributed to the racial divisions between peoples; Harris, on the other hand, wishes to reverse this: through his art, he will lay bare the connections between peoples, and thus will work towards counteracting racism. His artistic intent therefore has a powerful political and philosophical purpose.
The eponymous mask of the novel crystallizes one of Harris’s most dominant interests: the role of cognition, or more often distorted perception, in creating and perpetuating human conflict. For Harris, it is a question of epistemology rather than ethics or metaphysics. The personal epistemology that Harris expounds is in danger of becoming clouded by his discussion of the role of the Artist as ‘Nobody’, which detracts from his central philosophy, diluting and confusing his primary focus to negative effect. To see the mask of the Beggar as marking that margin between the oppressed and the oppressors, to understand the role of art as one of unifying cross-culturality rather than divisive attribution of blame, are central to Wilson Harris’s artistic and postcolonial project in this novel. Harris’s engagement with the Odyssey has been seen to be multilayered: his interest in father–son relationships and the impact of absence on these is explored through the Homeric framework; pivotally, his response to the Cyclops episode and Odysseus’s beggarly disguise enables him to consider the subjectivity of perceptions both of others and of ourselves, and from there to advocate the building of cross-cultural bridges. Within this cross-cultural vision, he embraces the Homeric epic for its effacement of the self, seen in Odysseus’s denial of his name, and even for the similarity glimpsed between Odysseus, the Cyclops, and the suitors, but rejects the finalized nature of epic. The nostos of the Odyssey becomes highly contested in this novel, for home is found to be in the very domain of the Cyclops. The Artist, having journeyed there as Odysseus does to Ithaca, finds a microcosm of cross-cultural society, but also discovers that it is no longer his home. Yet rather than lament the loss of this one home, the entire novel urges the acceptance of multiple homes, the denial of nationalistic and economic barriers, and even the rejection of sharp distinctions between individuals. Unlike the other works examined thus far in this volume, Harris’s model of engagement with the Odyssey includes the centrifugal as well as the centripetal; home and identity cease to be so fixedly proscribed in a vision that insists that the margin between self and other, oppressed and oppressor, is as porous as the mask of the beggar with its holes for eyes and mouth.
(3) Wilson Harris, The Mask of the Beggar (London: Faber and Faber, 2003). All references will be to this edition, and will be designated within this chapter by the page number given in brackets within the main body of the text.
(6) See Introduction, p. 26.
(9) However, the entire 1954 work, as it first appeared, is reprinted as an appendix to the 1978 edition.
(10) Cobham (1983) discusses the changes that Harris made to the 1978 edition, suggesting that the changes in the later text have a trifold purpose: ornamental imagery is taken out, much of the narrative impulse is suppressed, and Harris’s philosophy is updated.
(15) See Chapter 1, p. 55.
(16) See Chapter 3, pp. 131–133.
(20) See, for example, Harris’s stage direction: ‘She laughs, slips into the crowd and is lost to sight before Ulysses catches her’.
(27) See Harris (1999c), 242–247 for his discussion of the links between the Haitian spirit Legba and the ancient Greek Hephaestus, used to illustrate Harris’s theory of ‘an inner dynamic of universal civilization’.
(29) As Williams and Riach (1991), 52 point out, the now-traditional view of colonialism and its legacy as entirely evil, and the victims of colonialism as entirely virtuous must be cast aside to understand Harris’s writing.
(30) Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism (1955) and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) expound the devastating impact of colonialism particularly emotively.
(34) Achebe, ‘Colonialist criticism’ (1975), 3–18; 9. See Introduction, pp. 32–33, for discussion of Achebe’s criticism and of the problematic nature of the term ‘universal’.
(35) Appendix, pp. 261–262.
(37) Even Aimé Césaire—whose commitment to négritude may at first glance seem to condone discrimination on the basis of colour, by advocating not just pride in one’s ethnic roots, but the uniting of all those who are black—must be included in this. Despite Sartre’s (in)famous labelling of négritude as ‘anti-racist racism’ (Sartre (1969), 10), Césaire himself rejected such a perception of the movement, as we have seen (Chapter 1, p. 44; p. 61).
(43) Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin (2002), 7 begin by discussing this: ‘One of the main features of imperial oppression is control over language. [ … ] language becomes the medium through which a hierarchical structure of power is perpetuated, and the medium through which conceptions of “truth”, “order”, and “reality” become established. Such power is rejected in the emergence of an effective post-colonial voice.’
(49) See Introduction, p. 25.
(50) Homer does not explicitly specify that the Cyclopes have just one eye, and it has been suggested that Polyphemus merely lost his eye in an accident. However, Hesiod relates monocularity as a feature of the Cyclopes (Theogony 145), and it seems unlikely that Odysseus would not have commented on Polyphemus’s earlier loss of an eye, if this had been peculiar to him.
(52) De Jong (2001), 232.
(57) Maes-Jelinek (1995) discusses the homecoming motif found in Palace of the Peacock (1960), the trilogy of Carnival (1985), The Infinite Rehearsal (1987), and The Four Banks of the River of Space (1990), Da Silva da Silva’s Cultivated Wilderness (1977), The Tree of the Sun (1978), and the poem ‘Agamemnon’ in Eternity to Season (1954).
(59) Odysseus’s role as a storyteller is more ambivalent, as he uses his skill to lie to great effect, too (for example, in his Cretan tales)—and this is criticized at times in Homer.
(60) Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.243–297.
(62) ‘I’ve never really read the Iliad and the Odyssey’ (Independent, 10 November 1990), and within Omeros, the narrator who is closely identified with Walcott himself, declares, ‘I never read it … Not all the way through.’ (LVI.iii, p. 283). See Davis (1997b) for a fascinating analysis of the way in which Walcott’s disavowals of the epic genre function as a type of recusatio, and Taplin (1991) for an exploration of Walcott’s difficult relationship with Homer. See Chapter 3 in this volume.
(65) See Harris’s own description of the intertwining of his novels, quoted on pp. 207–208, below.
(70) It is worth recalling Breslin’s observation that Bakhtin, rather than Harold Bloom, may be the most illuminating of Derek Walcott’s attitude towards earlier literary influences, and that many of Walcott’s poems are in a sense ‘novelized’—Breslin (2001), 51. In Omeros, despite the narrator’s centrality, polyphony, rather than a monologic single voice, is heard.
(71) Harris (2003a), ix: ‘The artist or author does not have absolute control of his creations but is subject to being created afresh by the characters (or character-masks) he creates.’ This idea is explicitly restated towards the end of the novel: ‘I find myself an astonished creation of forces that create me even as I appear to create them.’ (p. 148).
(76) ‘Comedy and Modern Allegory: A Personal View of the Revival of Dantesque Scenes in Modern Fiction’. Paper delivered at the VIIIth Annual Conference of the Associazione Italiana di Anglistica at the University of Turin, 29 October 1985, quoted in Tiffin (1987), 23.
(77) James Joyce, Aimé Césaire and Ralph Ellison all present Cyclopes whose depiction leaves the audience in no doubt over whether to feel sympathy or condemnation for them.