March 6th, 2011 / 4:00 pm

The Spirit-Bone of Water

Wilson Harris

In this 2003 interview with Fred D’Aguiar, Wilson Harris speaks of place as character:

FD’A: A great magical web born of the music of the elements is how one may respond perhaps to a detailed map of Guyana seen rotating in space with its numerous etched rivers, numerous lines and tributaries, interior rivers, coastal rivers, the arteries of God’s spider. Guyana is derived from an Amerindian root word, which means “land of waters.” The spirit-bone of water that sings in the dense, interior rain forests is as invaluable a resource in the coastal savannahs which have long been subject to drought as to floodwaters that stretched like a sea from coastal river to coastal river yet remained unharnessed and wasted; subject also to the rapacity of moneylenders, miserable loans, inflated interest.

(From “A Note on the Genesis of the Guyana Quartet,” in The Guyana Quartet.)

Place as outlined here is a fully fledged character, rather than portrayed as symbolic or personified or pressed into service as metaphor (this is not to discount the three, since metaphor, symbol, and personification may be attributed to a successful character portrait). The landscape is not a backdrop. It is not passive. It exerts force and influence. The idea of a web that combines place and elements and stitches space together suggests fragility, vulnerability and enormous strength, omnipresence. The perspective relates things to each other but each thing seen in isolation makes it vulnerable to misuse, squander. Does the secret of a more fruitful relation between writer and place or explorer and place have to do with perspective, with how the place is viewed, or is more required of the writer and explorer? I am thinking of the representation of place in your fiction, Guyana’s interior in particular, and how your way of talking about the place, your perspective, appears to have been radicalized by the encounter and interaction with place, a notion perhaps of form emerging out of content.

WH: When I speak of “music”—as in the quotation you raise—I am thinking of “wordless music,” which brings an organ of animation within spaces in the dumb images we impose on nature everywhere. Such spaces are sparked into being and into “double meanings.” They have vulnerability and fragility, yet, through such vulnerability, such holed transparency, they touch on strength and omnipresence between characters—normally polarized and wholly separate—participating creatively and re-creatively in each other’s fates and freedoms. The language of conventional, linear fiction, which seems so strong, becomes an illusion and is broken by quantum holes that instantaneously make two penetrations or holes where one alone is expected. The “double meanings” may be said, in a numinous sense, to spring from a “music” or a rhythm that awakens spaces within passivities we take for granted.

Does the expression “land of waters” relate to a pre-Columbian complex we have long forgotten, or never understood, in our violations of ancient American civilizations?

Whether so or not, it summons us into an acute eye, an acute ear, beyond mere intellectuality, to listen for and to see “the land moving and capable of unconsidered arts in moved or moving rocks and shells and earth implying in its rhythm that “the waters are still though in a web of rotating space.”

Such paradoxes in variant symbiosis may assist us to harness the living waters in preparation for the dry, cracked face of drought that the earth wears, and it may help us to anticipate coming catastrophes from sea and river.

Read the rest at BOMB Magazine.


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