Printer Friendly

Creative bridges: some aspects of myth in "Couvade" and 'The Four Banks of the River of Space.'

The multidimensional nature of myths, their oral transmission and constant transformation, makes it impossible for them to be known in their entirety. In the contemporary context Wilson Harris perceives further complication in the inevitable postcolonial hybridity of myth: "when you go into the so-called Third World, the archetypes, if I may use that word ... those archetypes, which they call `native' archetypes are all overlaid by European skeletons and archetypes as well. You will never activate them unless you activate the so-called `European' as well. They are locked together and there is no way around that."(1) This sense of the layers of myth is characteristic of Harris's writing where no single myth or mythology prevails but where the various ways in which myth is used give the work a mythical character. As Harris goes on to say, this focus on the layers of myth engenders a creative cross-culturalism in which the dynamic resources that lie at the heart of myth can be visualized as a response to the dilemmas of the present. It is in this way that myth appears in Harris's "Couvade" and The Four Banks of the River of Space as both a creative bridge between cultures and as a resource through which stases of oppression can be revised.

The idea of a creative bridge or arch of community is particularly appropriate to the story of "Couvade," in which Harris re-creates a ritual dream of the Caribs to suggest an archetypal image of spiritual progress and renewal. The first of a Carib trilogy entitled The Sleepers of Roraima, "Couvade" is based on the vestiges of a Carib myth and we are told in the author's note: "The purpose of Couvade was to hand on the legacy of the tribe--courage and fasting--to every newborn child. All ancestors were involved in this dream--animal as well as human, bird as well as fish. The dust of every thing, cassava bread (the Carib's staple diet), the paint of war, the cave of memories, were turned into a fable of history--the dream of Couvade."(2) In rewriting this dream of Couvade, Harris is challenging the conventional view that the Caribs have disappeared without trace. For while, at the level of content, the story tells of the imminent extinction of the Carib race, the creative potential of their legacy is explored ("relived") through its mythical form. It is significant that the dream is described as: "some strange dream of history in which his grandfather's people feared they would vanish from the face of the earth" (18). Although the historical perspective defines the Caribs as extinct, myth tilts the boundaries of such perspective to reveal the reflections and circularities that continue to connect us with that past age.

The first line tells us that the name Couvade here means "sleeper of the tribe" and this immediately signals the journey into the unconscious which is about to be undertaken. Rather than the polarity of a conscious/unconscious life, however, the multilevels of dreaming/waking in the text enact a drama of consciousness akin to Jung's process of individuation in which the individual, having unlocked the personal unconscious to reintegrate the self, becomes aware of how that self is connected to all other selves in a much larger collective consciousness. In order to begin this journey Couvade must listen to "the ancestral voices of waterfall and forest" (16) and learn the intuitive perspective of the guacharo bird whose "uncanny reflexes (piercing vision and echoing wings) guided it through the darkest underground caves" (16). Although Couvade is ostensibly guided by the figure of his grandfather, that figure takes a variety of forms, benevolent ancestral lizard as well as ancient trickster, so that Couvade is forced to negotiate the shifting reality of his dream through a variety of means. Having entered the cave of ancestors, which is described as a return to the womb, he wears the two disguises of half-bird, half-fish in an attempt to swim across to the spectre of his lost parents. When both of these fail, Couvade realizes that he must go to them in his own form and so removes the disguises: "He carefully restored the head-dress, spectacles, feathers to the ground of the cave, the scales and eyes of the fish to the wall where they shone now like stars and constellations" (19-20). Only when he exposes himself to his ancestors, becomes susceptible to them, does the bridge of souls appear to carry him across to the other bank of the stream. That this has been a symbolic, an imaginative bridge, is made clear in the obvious reflection of this other bank: "No one was there to greet him but he saw that they had left their sunglasses suspended from a branch. Their head-dress too and the scales and eyes of a fish like a starry cloak which shone in the water against the trees. Couvade was glad. It was as if they wished to surrender to him all their disguises as he had surrendered his to them on his side of the cave" (21). It is not that Couvade has crossed physically to another bank but that we (through him) have altered perspective. Through these journeys, these changes in perspective, Couvade becomes a part of the cycle which deconstructs, through connecting, polarities of hunter and hunted, friend and enemy.

The story is structured around various polarities which it becomes the function of the myth to mediate. The struggle between hunter and hunted reflects the history of the Caribs, their fierce reputation, and eventual conquest by another people. This is connected to, and contained within, images of male and female. The Carib practice of taking wives from the tribes they conquered engenders a cross-culturalism in the child (Couvade) who embodies both self and enemy. Chapter 3 tells us that the head-dress of feathers belonged to the father (huntsmen of night) and the scales and eyes of the fish to the mother (fishermen of night), revealing that the disguises Couvade had tried to inhabit had failed because both were necessarily partial. Although Couvade is initiated into the motherhood of the tribe, one of the most poetically rendered scenes of the journey tells us, "He shook himself now--the dust of stars--as if he too danced to the music of the river. In fact his feet began to move and spin. Ballet of the fish. Dance of the fish. Song of the river. Net of the river. He said to his grandfather in an ecstasy of happiness, `I have caught her. My mother. She sings and dances in my net, in my heart. Song and dance of the fish painted on the wall of the cave'" (27). It is in the complementarity of male and female energies that the journey reaches its climax: "The fish-net of his mother, which was no other than the bird-cloak of his father, whirled and danced in the sky, then settled itself into the bridge of dawn. Couvade felt the presence of both his lost parents crossing and re-crossing the shimmering bridge" (31).

Chapter 3 is the longest section of the story and the one in which Couvade, having unlocked the personal unconscious to reintegrate the self, begins to connect to a larger collective consciousness; this is surrounded by two shorter, and then two yet shorter chapters or sections. As Mark McWatt has noted, the story is thus structured to suggest three concentric circles, each deeper and more complex as you move toward the center, suggesting images of the whirlpool or vortex, and in attempting a linear progression of the story, the reader experiences a cross section of the whirlpool.(3) The final chapter, in which Couvade discovers the riddle of his name and identity, thus enacts the emergence from the whirlpool: "At long last the retreat began. Was it retreat of enemy or retreat of friend? The idol of the moon fell from the sky. The idol of the stars began to fade. The long ghostly armies crept across the blanket of tribes, the blanket of Couvade sound asleep in his hammock. And in the mouth of the cave where he dreamt be lay since the night his parents ran from the tribe, he too seemed to be passing into the light of freedom--a new sobering reflection--bridge of relationships" (34). The historical moment when the Caribs are invaded is transfigured through myth to illuminate the freedom and evolution also present in that cross-cultural encounter as Couvade, the ritual dream of the Caribs, crosses the "bridge of relationships" to become an imaginative resource for the future Caribbean. Though Harris emphasizes the need to activate such resources, such latent spaces in the cross-cultural psyche, he does not underestimate the task: "Uncertain of the figures coming alive on the wall of the cave. Uncertain there was not a long hard way to go before the idols and paintings would truly melt, truly live, birth of compassion, birth of love" (35).

The usurping of the victor/victim stasis forms the first stage in Harris's quantum journey through The Four Banks of the River of Space. The journey takes place in the rainforests of Guyana, which are, for Anselm, "the heartland of the twentieth century."(4) In crossing the rivers of the living and the dead,(5) Anselm's task is to move into hidden spaces, to inhabit a variety of half-real, half-mythical identities that will challenge static archetypes of twentieth-century history. As he declares on The First Bank: "We may only heal the wounded archetype when we live the divide at the heart of language and place its enormity on many shoulders . . ." (30). The king of thieves whom Anselm inhabits in this first chapter is a multidimensional historical and psychological character--a Guyanese miner called Black Pizarro with antecedents in Christian and colonial history, who also signals an aspect of self. As Harris makes explicit: "He is the thief who mocked Christ and turned his face away from paradise's door. Such a thief lives in us all and in a door that haunts us in every century" (14). A composite figure of this king of thieves emerges at the end of the chapter to lead a procession for the victim and make an offering in his honor: "It was as if in so doing he released for an instant the heavy burden of gold he had stolen across the centuries, the heavy obsession that tormented him and his fellow miners whom he led. He became the last tormented thief in the world in that miraculous instant" (40). In illuminating the contiguity that exists between "those who bury and those who are buried" (40), Anselm breaks the absoluteness of the archetype (The King of Thieves) and transcends the stasis of victor and victim. In recognizing this "quantum stranger" (6) as also a part of himself, he is able to cross to The Second Bank where he becomes the Carnival Heir of Civilizations.

As the above title indicates, Anselm proceeds on his journey through a variety of masks and personae. Like Odysseus, "he has become plural and is borne upon the shoulders--re-born within the flesh--of many cultures." The Four Banks of the River of Space is a cross-cultural rewriting of the Odyssey, but one in which the characters of Ulysses and Penelope are fragmented throughout the text, both as partial aspects of the self and as complex revisions of the myth that frames them. In transporting the classical epic to the Guyana rainforests, Harris also elicits parallels with Christian and Amerindian myths to reflect the cross-cultural hybridity of the Americas and to demonstrate bridges of myth that connect apparently distinct cultures throughout the world. In the same way as Jung regarded dreams as communications from the unconscious and identified recurrent images (archetypes) that could be found in all epochs and which served to connect the individual with the totality of his or her psyche--"they bring into our ephemeral consciousness an unknown psychic life belonging to a remote past. It is the mind of our unknown ancestors, their way of thinking and feeling, their way of experiencing life and the world, gods and men"(6)--so Anselm is the "living dreamer" who is able to reintegrate his own and the collective American psyche through seizing the unexpected correspondences that appear on his journey through the cross-cultural imagination.

Anselm's meeting with Penelope on The Second Bank is typical of the way in which Harris writes such multitudinous significance into a single encounter. Penelope is an English missionary who, with her second husband Ross George, worked in South America from 1948 to 1966. The preface tells us that they both died in Kent, England, in the early 1980s. Penelope carries with her the shadow of her dead husband, Simon, a British officer who died in the Second World War. Together, these three represent the colonizing powers of the army and the Christian church. Anselm meets them on The Second Bank where he travels back into his own past in the Guyana rainforest: "Penelope and Ross re-emerged from the margins of nothingness into which they had almost vanished. The depletion of spiritual memory, the curious fast of memory which I endured, strengthened in a paradoxical way the open, broken yet flowering seed of visualized presences within me, before me" (52). These presences are described as "unsuspected and piercing ironies of spirit that nailed one into the congregation of all one's characters and even into the shoes of the king of thieves" (52). They are thus a part of the community of being each of us carries within and with whom, Harris urges, we must become acquainted. Language and imagery--"congregation," "the king of thieves"--signal a Christian framework, although the reference to "the king of thieves" is already multilayered in echoing the archetype confronted on The First Bank. The focus on "the shoes" reflects Harris's method of sudden, concrete visualization to hinge a complex psychological concept. The oblique reference to the spectre of Christ in the use of the verb nailed is picked up in the next movement: "One bears the wounds of the past into the future and the present. One is oneself and other than oneself ... it was thus that I limped, as though nailed upon an Imaginary walking tree in stained glass window that I painted, into the presence of the last missionaries on earth . . ." (53). The use of the capital Imaginary draws attention to the multiple connotations that are being exploited in the linguistic structure. Anselm is both subject and object here, experiencing a connection while at the same time painting/imagining the tableau of that connection. It is significant that Anselm is walking "into the presence" of Penelope for she, as feminine Wisdom, draws him into her canvas, as well as the other way around.

Penelope speaks at this point and informs Anselm of her relationship to Simon and to Ross. Simon is the "epic soldier" (53), a Ulyssean figure whose heroism is challenged by an emerging female voice: "she whispered almost under her breath--`I shall tell you later about some of the terrible things he did to me despite the many decorations he wore on his chest'" (53). Ross--"who was no base suitor at Penelope's court" (25)--is the husband with whom she lives the sacramental marriage. Since his death in 1981 and her own in 1982, she tells Anselm, she has been weaving a coat: "I have been `slaving at a coat for many a month, many a year, in this day or century. A coat that is woven of the fabric of sunset, the stillness, the transience of flame. A coat that is as much a tapestry of the world, as of fire and water, to fit the shoulder of a hill, or the body of rock in a Waterfall" (34). The coat that never fits Ross or Simon is also "the coat of tradition that never quite seems to fit the globe" (58) or Anselm's narrative, which is constantly disrupted by Penelope: "Did you really put that key there, Penelope, in the loom of tradition without knowing you had done so ... ?" (58).

The image of Penelope as feminine Wisdom and the importance of her perspective in guiding Anselm along his Journey are constant themes throughout the novel. In this meeting it is Penelope who illuminates the nature of their dynamic interplay: "You painted me into the Day of my age, the cathedral of stained-glass window sunset, as if the needle with which I work and sew were a match. The match of sunset. And because of the impermanence of darkness and light the match of sunrise as well" (54). The cyclical way in which Penelope appears and reappears is reflected in her unraveling of the garment that is never complete: "`Yes,' she continued, `always a discrepancy. And as a consequence I unravel the work I have done, unstitch everything, and start all over again from the very beginning whenever that was. I unravel my Day and start all over again'" (54). Penelope is involved in the revisionary cycle, the revision of tradition and of static archetypes, and her next words make explicit the echoes of sunset and sunrise that have linked her with the Aztec myth of Venus/Quetzalcoatl: "I shall be emancipated woman in heaven. Ageless sunset and sunrise woman for all I know. A status of Wisdom, a status of elemental Wisdom, not easily achievable on earth! The perfect fit, the perfect marriage between light and darkness, Night and Day" (54-55).

In an example of just three pages, then, we can trace threads of Christian, ancient Greek, and ancient pre-Columbian imagery as Harris invests in the figure of Penelope a variety of cross-cultural associations, which serve to connect overlapping cycles of history and myth. As Anselm says: "--in drawing you out of the margins of nothingness into visualized being--I needed to bridge the centuries-long Night, the Night of ancient Greece into North African desert Night where Simon, your first and jealous husband, fought in Montgomery's army, the Night of Spain into the Night of South America where the reincarnated thief ransacked the gold of the Incas" (57). As the twentieth century draws to a close and Anselm unravels cycles of oppression to reveal "a theatre of interchangeable masks," it is the spectre of Penelope that appears to spin the cycle of a new day:

This rain of night seemed to glimmer in the stars. Captors and captives began to loom in the new darkness of the Dream, the new guardian rocks, the new guardianship of sky and cloud at the heart of the Waterfall of space, a theatre of interchangeable masks and fates and elements upon savages and civilizations. The rain that fell upon us was so fine-spun and delicate that it seemed an impossibility when within it we discerned the burden and mystery of the rising sun. (161)


(1) Harris in interview with Alan Riach in The Radical Imagination: Lectures and Talks, ed. Alan Riach and Mark Williams (Liege: Universite de Liege, 1992), 40-41.

(2) The Sleepers of Roraima (London: Faber and Faber, 1970); hereafter cited parenthetically.

(3) Mark McWatt, "Form and Originality: The Amerindian Fables of Wilson Harris," Journal of West Indian Literature 1.2 (1987): 38.

(4) The Four Banks of the River of Space (London: Faber and Faber, 1990); hereafter cited parenthetically.

(5) The visible river of the living and the invisible river of the dead form the four banks of the river of space.

(6) Jung, Selected Writings, 223.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Review of Contemporary Fiction
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Murray, Patricia
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Jun 22, 1997
Previous Article:New personalities: race, sexuality, and gender in Wilson Harris's recent fiction.
Next Article:Renewal in a far more resonant key: reflections on the mad, sin-eating relics of fire in 'Resurrection at Sorrow Hill.'

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters