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University of the West Indies
Notes on contributors
C RB N
VOLUME 21 NO. 4
Copyright reserved and reproduction without permission strictly forbidden.
1 The Spirit in the Bottle A reading of Mittelholzer's A Morning at the Office
13. Hamlet in Haiti: Style in Carpentier's The Kingdom of this World
30. Alfonso Reyes: Critic and Artist
47. Poem Title: Let me explain to the Reader Why I didn't get around to
finishing that poem on the Commune.
Roberto Retamar translated by J. R. Pereira
43. An Infinite Canvas: Review of Wilson Harris' Companions of the Day and Night
56. Publications of the Department
UNIVERSITY OF THE WEST INDIES
R.M. Nettleford, Director of Extra-Mural Studies (Editor)
Lloyd Braithwaite, Pro-Vice Chancellor, U.W.I., St. Augustine, Trinidad.
Sidney Martin, Pro-Vice Chancellor, U.W.I., Cave Hill, Barbados.
Roy Augier, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Mona. Jamaica.
J.J. Figueroa, Professor, Faculty of Education, U.W.I., Mona, Jamaica.
G.A. Alleyne, Professor, Medical Research Council, U.W.I. Mona.
Lloyd Coke, Department of Botany, U.W.I. Mona.
Neville McMorris, Department of Physics, U.W.I., Mona.
All correspondence should be addressed to:
Department of Extra-Mural Studies,
University of the West Indies,
Mona. Kingston 7 Jamaica.
We invite readers to submit manuscripts or recommended subjects which they
would like to see discussed in CARIBBEAN QUARTERLY. Articles of Caribbean
relevancy will be gratefully received.
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Subscription orders may be forwarded to the Editor or to the Resident Tutor at
University Centre in any West Indian Territory served by this University.
Notes on Contributors
Lecturer, Department of General Studies,
UWI (Cave Hill), Playwright and Literary Critic
Lecturer, Bennington College, Bennington, Vermont.
Lecturer, Department of Spanish, UWI (Mona)
Director, Casa de las Americas, Havana, Cuba, poet.
This, the second of two issues consecutively dealing with the literature of the
Caribbean, takes for its principal focus, critical perspectives on our literature, some-
what removed from the strictly socio-political dimension which some thinkers in the
Caribbean feel threatens an explanatory or interpretive determinism, at once restric-
tive as well as inadequate to fully account for creative cultural expression in this part
of the world.
Michael Gilkes in his first of two critical essays in this issue, looks carefully at
Edgar Mittelholzer's A Morning at the Office; he suggests with generous illus-
tration from the text, that the novelist renders a picture of more than just seg-
mented Caribbean social structure and its determining effect on the response of the
characters. Other riches,Gilkes suggests, if not more human because they reflect
along with the social,the individual psychological dynamics of characters, are to be
found too in Mittelholzer's work. The social milieu, by its structure, dynamics, and
oneH place in all that, need not be a stultyfying prison, but can be transcended by
something fundamentally human the spirit of creativity- that, for Gilkes, is a key to
A Morning at the Office.
The essayist's detailed critical appreciation of one of the Caribbean's most richly
complex novelists, Wilson Harris'newly published work, Companions of the Day
and Night provides the reader with a detailed and full review of the work, placing it
at the same time in the total context of the novelists oeuvre.
Alan Cheuse's essay on the style of Carpentier's The Kingdom of This World
is as specific and illuminative of the Cuban born novelist's treatment of the Haitian
Revolution, as it is broad ranging and illustrative, through comparison with other
revolutions, of the creative potential for action inherent in -myth lived as reality. The
ghost of Hamlet's father, the loas ancestral spirits of African slaves, link the insights of
a Shakespeare and a Carpentier; the lived myth provides the roots for action for Ham-
let as well as for the Black Jacobins.
In a careful, amply documented study, Sheila Carter provides us with a lucid guide
to the critical theory and method of the notable Latin American literary figure
Alphonso Reyes, demonstrating by her own application to one of his works, an
aspect of his critical theory particularly as it relates to the evocative and suggestive
use of language in literature as distinguished from its use in history and science.
The Cuban poet Roberto Retamar's highly personal contemplation of the poet and
history, the poet and revolution, uniquely free in tone and structure amplifies an
underlying frequency to which this issue is, so to speak, tuned bringing it to an end
and a beginning the fundamentally common ground of human creativity and human
response to history.
THE SPIRIT IN THE BOTTLE
A reading of Mittelholzer's A Morning at the Office
When Edgar Mittelholzer travelled to Britain in February 1948 he was the
first of the "New Generation" of West Indian writers who later emigrated to
Britain and whose work, from the 1950's onwards signalled the extraordinary
growth of the Caribbean novel. A Morning at the Office. (Hogarth Press, 1950)
his second published novel,' has been distinguished as the work:
which first won wide recognition for British Caribbean writing.
and paved the way for the remarkable march of English-speaking
Caribbean novelists who followed.2
Yet, curiously enough, little critical attention3 has been given to this novel
which brought Mittelholzer immediate recognition and critical acclaim; and to
which West Indian writing, apparently, owes so much. This may be partly a
result of the general unevenness of Mittelholzer criticism, which has tended, so
far, to adopt two main attitudes: a frank (often uncritical) advocacy, and a
sympathetic, but dutiful, exposure of the "pathetic triviality of Mittelholzer's
art'4 Mittelholzer's work, it seems, is allowed either to be very good and
(because of its pioneering qualities of energy, integrity and dedication) "in the
fore-front of the entire range of Commonwealth Caribbean novelists"5;
or revealed, with due respect, to be embarrassingly bad. A Morning at the Office
is generally held to be one of Mittelholzer's "good" novels, "a real success"6
a novel that is "classical in structure, observing the unities of time, theme and
place"7 and, in the opinion of discerning critics, "probably his best novel"8
The novel's strength, however, lies, we are told, in its sense of felt experience:
"the authenticity never falters, and therein lies the power of the book"9:
and its excellence is seen to reside in its force as an authentic social study -
its examination of the West Indian colonial ethos: "if the book is a social
document, it is a document with a difference one that is read for pleasure"'
This tendency to regard A Morning at the Office as primarily a social tract: a
sensitively written documentary study of colonial life in Trinidad which is
at the same time, (as a kind of bonus), an entertaining novel, is unfortunate.
The novel's deeper, more complex meaning, like the writer's attempt to produce
an "associative" art of fiction, has, as a result, generally gone unnoticed. Authors
are not (perhaps fortunately so) always the most reliable authorities on what
their work is "about", for any work of art functions like another person,
having independent life of its own;' and the narrow view of A Morning at the
Office as a social treatise is actually encouraged by Mittelholzer's own remarks.
The novel, he had said, was written in order to:
debunk certain fallacies held by people in Northern Regions
about the people in the West Indies especially the fallacy that makes
us out to be backward half-civilized people, it is really a grand tract
nicely dressed up.12
Consequently, the occasional travel-book style of the writing:
In the West Indies, Chinese are of two main divisions those who
are the descendants of the immigrants from Hong Kong, Cantonor
Peking who arrived in the latter half of the nineteenth century
Portuguese, in the West Indies, are not looked upon as white
They came from Madeira, the great majority of them, in the
latter half of the nineteenth century (p. 193).
serves mainly to provide a documentary function, and it is this "social"
aspect of the novel that we shall consider first.
Like the Life and Death of Sylvia (1953) the book is an unsparingly honest
and penetrating appraisal of a typically hierarchical, colour-based, colonial
society. The name of the Office ("Essential Products Ltd.") has an ironic,
Naipaulian ring: the firm's activities the export of sugar by-products such
as jam and marmalade are not only not essential, but also unconstitutional,
since they are permitted (thanks for the political influence of the firm's white
principals) in spite of a government ban. The office itself is a microcosm of
Trinidad and, by implication, West Indian society, whose formal pattern of
racial and social echelons is repeated in the organisation of the multiracial
staff: the white manager insulated at one end, behind the frosted glass door of
a private office, and the black office messenger at the other, physically
separated by a wooden barrier from the central area with its coloured, East
Indian, Chinese, French and Spanish creole workers, each in distinct role or
category according to racial and social status. This compact framework13, at
once actual and symbolic, reflects the author's tight, artistic control as well as
his deliberately objective view of his material. Mortimer Barnett, the local
writer who depends upon advertisements to finance publication of his work
because: "We haven't any publishers in the West Indies who will bring out a
writer's work at their own risk" (p. 202); and whose theory of novel-writing
exactly matches Mittelholzer's own in this novel:
You start out by writing about a group of characters
painting in their backgrounds with a certain amount of detail,
but pause every now and then to go into the stories of objects
that surround your characters or objects in the past lives of your
characters (p. 190).
does, it is true, have a good
deal in common with the author; but he appears only briefly near the end of
the book, talks to Mr. Murrain about his theory of "telescopic objectivity" and
then leaves as quietly as he has come.
It is this effect of "telescopic objectivity" which characterizes the novel
and allows Mittelholzer, within the precise time-scheme (6.56 anm. to noon)
of one morning in the life of a colonial Trinidad office, to examine the West
Indian situation, simultaneously revealing the historical "shadows" which have
conditioned and created the characters' present responses and indicating the
possible direction and shape such a society might take in the future. Thus,
behind the hopeless infatuation of Horace Xavier, the black office messenger,
for Mrs. Nanette Hinckson, the manager's coloured secretary, lies a dense
hinterland of social, racial and cultural gradations and taboos;
His complexion was dark brown; hers was pale olive. His hair
was kinky; hers was full of large waves and gleaming. He was a poor
boy with hardly any education, the son of a cook; she was well
off and of good education and good breeding. He was low-class;
she was middle-class (p. 16)
Similarly, the distrustful, officious manner of Jagabir, the East Indian assistant
accountant who takes a malicious pleasure in exerting his petty authority, and
who is consequently disliked by the others, is shown to have its origin in the
social stigma of indentured labour from which his people have only recently been
emancipated; "because he was an Indian, because he was the son of indentured
coolies, they all looked upon him as dirt." (p. 28). His obsequious, almost
servile attitude to authority stems from fear of jeopardizing his position. Behind
the self-confidence and poise of the coloured typists, Miss Henry and Mrs
Hinckson lies "a background of gentility and social superiority over the
Negro, East Indian and Chinese elements" (pp. 47/48): and the brusqueness
and cupidity of the chief clerk, Eustace Benson, are products of a deprived,
bitterly unhappy childhood:
His parents had been nobodies at least his mother had been.
He was not even legitimate. His black mother had had to hire
out her body to these good-class coloured people... Then, as though
to pile up ignominy upon ignominy, she had died when he was seven
getting another child (p. 151).
Indeed, the lives of all the characters are, whether they know it or not,
burdened with the oppressive weight of the past which is responsible for the
frustrations and prejudices that create a "self-perpetuating sequence of re-
sentment which goes round like the shock that is passed from coach to coach
in a shunted train."14 But events in the novel also suggest the gradually
changing order of things in the present, as well as the possibility of a less
unjust, better-integrated society in the future. The episode in which the
young English overseer, Sidney Whitmer, depressed and morally offended by
the racial snobbery of the "pretentious, shallow local whites" (p. 31), comes to
the office drunk, and creates a scandal, not only exposes the iniquities of the
colonial colour hierarchy:
The hypocrisy and the nerve of you English hounds. You come
out to these colonies and squeeze the guts out of 'em and then
you piss on the natives! Insult to injury" (p. 133).
but also serves indirectly to draw together the coloured staff in a common cause;
for the overbearing behaviour of Mrs. Murrain, the white assistant manager's
wife (who happens to come in at this moment), is the visible justification of
Whitmer's drunken accusations. So, too, the dock strikers' demonstration which
passes outside highlights the injustice and inequality inherent in the colonial
situation of which the office is itself an example, but at the same time provides the
impetus for self-assertion and a re-appraisal of personal relationships. Eustace
Benson repairs his self-respect (damaged by his earlier exhibition of diffidence
when confronted by Mrs.Murrain) by openly expressing approval of the strike;
and the discussion that follows between manager and secretary reveals that not
all expatriate whites are as self-consciously Caucasian or as patronizing as
Mr. Murrain. The peoples' growing political awareness is reflected in Mrs.
Hinckson's wholehearted support of the demonstrators' demands for a West
Indian federation and the nationalization of the oil industry:
Mr. Waley whistled and raised his brows. "You're really in favour
of nationalizing the oil industry?"
Most certainly! Don't you think it a scandal that millions of our
dollars should go into the pockets of absentee proprietors in England
and America every year while, comparatively speaking, we get next
to nothing?" (pp. 166/167)
In the "debate" that follows, Mrs. Hinckson makes much the better showing.
Towards the end of the novel as high noon approaches, a series of events occurs
which indicate some of the ways in which the society may be different in the
future. Mr Murrain, after his talk with Mortimer Barnett, realizes that his
snobbish attitude to coloured folk is only a lack of self-assurance and an absence
of practical experience on his part:
He knew that every word he had said to Barnett had been free
of hypocrisy; somehow, he had not found it necessary to indulge in
conventional cordialities Good gracious! But one couldn't
object to the company of a person like Mortimer Barnett on the
grounds of colour! (p. 200)
Mr. Lopez. the junior accountant, notices a dirty smudge on the pocket of the
jacket which Jagabir wears in the office in a pathetic attempt to preserve
his self-importance. It is a grease stain from the roti which is to be his
lunch. The sudden compassion Lopez experiences is a momentary dissolving
of the class prejudice which has always made him despise Jagabir:
The contempt that arose in Mr. Lopez was abruptly ex-
tinguished by a flash of pity. He saw Mr. Jagabir as a lonely, too-
much despised figure (p. 208).
Horace Xavier, the black office-boy (who, earlier had surreptitiously placed
a love-verse from Shakespeare's "As You Like It" on Mrs. Hinckson's desk),
simmering with embarrassment and anger because he suspects that he has been
found out and is now a laughing-stock, finally explodes:
Horace strode through the barrier-gate with a crash. He was at
Mrs. Hinckson's desk in three strides. Mr. Jagabir half-rose from
his chair. Horace snatched the paper from the File tray.
"Boy! You gone off you' head!" shouted Mr. Jagabir.
Horace sprang round to face him.
"Because I black? It's my paper! I put down de words on it! I
got a right to take it back!"
He was trembling all over "Keep you'job! I don't want it!
His action is at once a protest against the barrier which a colonial society has
erected to keep him out, convinced of the danger of his participation as an
equal ("But for the barrier" thinks Miss Yen Tip, "she would have felt a little
alarmed" p. 207) and an expression of the black West Indian's vigorous claim
for respect and recognition as an individual. But the process of social emanci-
pation in the West Indies is visualized as a re-structuring and unification of all
racial and national attributes of the region:
if the West Indies was to evolve a culture individually
West Indian, it could only come out of the whole hotch-potch of
racial and national elements of which the West Indies was composed;
it could not spring only from the Negro. (p. 214)
and beneath the novel's message as a social document urging the full and
compassionate integration of different peoples and cultures, lies the no less
urgent theme of the need for personal integrity as a starting-point. This is a
deeper, more complex theme, and the real source of the novel's power.
For the characters in A Morning at the Office are linked together not only
by their involvement, within the narrow confines of office and island,in the West
Indian colonial situation: they are also united, at a deeper, more personal level,
by a shared psychological impediment. This is the inner frustration which the
cultural "Jen fairy' tale"' contains in an allegorical form, and which produces
(in Mr. Murrain, as well as in other characters) the sensation of being "trapped in
the skin" The fairy-tale is closely associated with the character of Miss
Bisnauth, who finds it a great consolation. Written by her literary friend,
Arthur Lamby, the story involves "a little girl called Mooney (who) lived in a
big house near the Canje Creek" (p. 121) and whose nurse tells her a story
about a terrible creature called a "Jen" an indestructible and indescribably
dreadful monster: "Once a Jen is born and grows up, nothing and nobody can kill
it" (p. 122) Mooney, alone upstairs one day, is visited by the "Jen" In the
conversation that ensues, she finds, through her sympathetic interest that the
"Jen" is really a lonely monster:
"I'm lonely. A great, lonely, dreadful Jen."
"Too great and lonely and dreadfully dreadful for anyone to let
you hurt them? Is that what you mean?"
"That's exactly what I mean "(p. 125)
The description of the "Jen", who is a "reason for many things" and whose
evasive nature is "part of my badness" (p. 124) supports the interpretation of
it as a projected aspect of the human psyche: a quality which, though
capable of causing immense upheaval if allowed to act, is nevertheless kept
inactive through being suppressed or ignored. Like the "friend" the "Jen"
describes "who was as dreadful in his day" (p. 125) but who scared people
so much that they nullified his dreadful power simply by buying "millions
of masks to hide their faces from him" (p. 125), the "Jen" appears to represent
the repressed, creative self. Immediately after she remembers Arthur's fairy-tale,
Miss Bisnauth thinks:
Arthur had genius, she was convinced. He could get far but
he must escape from that newspaper office. It was cramping his
soul, killing his creative urge. (p. 126, my emphasis).
This stifling of the creative urge was, to Mittelholzer, the most pernicious
of the evils which attached to the colonial condition;16 and it is no coincidence
that "Mooney" (a pejorative word when applied to a would-be writer,
suggesting an attitude with which the "eccentric" Mittelholzer was quite
familiar) lives in the vicinity of Mittelholzer's home town of New Amsterdam
near the Canje Creek, symbol, for Mittelholzer, of the mysterious forbidden
The water in the Canje Creek is black you never knew what
might be wriggling in the water besides fishes, and sometimes strange
cries that frightened Mooney came from the bush. (p. 121)
or that Miss Bisnauth, who writes poetry in her spare time, has "Nightmare
Moments" when she feels herself becoming emotionally and spiritually dead:
experiences which Arthur Lamby attributes to her early childhood experience
Arthur said it was a neurosis the result of her naturally vivid
imagination coupled with repressions she had suffered in her home,
especially during early childhood when she had had as nurse an old
relative of her mother's who was deformed and who had often fright-
ened her by making grimaces at her and loud panting sounds. (p.74)
Mr. Murrain, the white assistant manager, has a scar on his left forearm the
result of a wound received at Dunkirk which tingles whenever he suffers an
attack of the "trapped-in-the-skin shudders" (p. 93). But although his traumatic
war experience haunts him, it is equally clear that his life has been blighted19
by a much earlier experience. As a romantic ("Moony"?) young boy he "had
written verse of the idealistic and sentimental variety" (p. 45) and had ambitions
of becoming an author. His cruel discouragement at the hands of his practical
"Thousands possibly, hundreds of thousands of self-fancied
geniuses have tried their hand and flopped at this sort of thing,
Everard. You have no talent, boy." His massive frame began to
quiver with mirth, for he was a man with no small sense of humour.
even though it is well-intentioned (and in later years Everard Murrain "had
come to discover that he had no talent."(p. 46), merely drives his creative urge
underground, where it simmers, occasionally rising to the surface as an embarras-
sing, unidentifiable itch. In everyday life he remains a misfit. In the office, the
"trapped" feeling is intensified by his knowledge that the efficient, under-paid
Jagabir, the assistant accountant, makes his own position as accountant a
sinecure. When he thinks of this, he experiences "a discomfiture which, in its
intensity, frightened him. It was a psychopathic discomfiture, he felt." (p.41).
He suppresses his conscience, however, as he also tries to rationalize his
"demeaning" sexual attraction to the coloured Miss Henery an effort that
involves a refusal to "admit it, so to speak, in open conference with his ego."
(p. 48). The repression of the creative, emotional self is also implied in Mrs.
Hinckson's wish "to think that her life was governed by her reason rather than
her emotions." (p. 102). An intellectual herself, she admires and respects
but she had a strong sensual streak, and she would have liked a
man who would have made love to her with a wild and unrestrained
recklessness. (p. 102).
and, realizing that because of this "sensual streak" she had never really loved
her late husband, who was also an intellectual, feels frustrated because of her
conviction that she will never find both qualities combined in one man.
Mr. Reynolds, the coloured, homosexual salesman also possesses a"Jen":
He was afraid of himself. He dreaded introspecting, for when
he introspected he pitied himself and 'saw his loneliness as a thing
of magnified terror and ugliness. (p. 175)
But it is in the figure of the gentle Miss Bisnauth that the creative nature
of the "Jen" is most readily observable. In her, the associative impulse of the
novel finds its most sustained expression. She is not obliged to work for a
living: her parents are wealthy. It is the creative activity of writing poetry20
(she liked music but the linking together of words fascinated her far more."
p. 76, my emphasis) and the wish to broaden her experience of people to
this end that makes her choose to work in an office:
Her object in working in an office was so that she could meet
people and study them and get to feel sympathetic with their
different outlooks. (p. 76)
She is the personification of the natural, intuitive imagination at work attempt-
ing to repair the broken relationships and hostile differences between people.
Arthur Lamby, whose extraordinarily mixed racial pedigree (I'm a regular
U.N. council" he says, and in so doing emphasizes the positive aspect of racial
admixture) forces her parents to object to him as a son-in-law, is, for her,
significantly, "the best man in existence" (p. 75) The poem she attempts to
write about "a potent flower of petals three" has as its theme, love, pity and
humility; concepts which "her fancy welded into a single whole" (p. 72)
and which underline her "soft nature and her intense pity for all living creatures"
(p. 77) She is nevertheless aware that her own kindness, like her poetry, may
be ultimately futile, human nature being what it is; and her "Nightmare
Moments"2 1 of self-doubt during which she experiences a temporary paralysis
of her creative powers, reveal her identification with the "Jen":
Not a few minutes ago it had come to her all in a flash that
her poem was no good. It was idiotic. (p. 210)
Am I really a kind lady, I wonder? Or could it be just the
sentimental in me that makes me feel a great pity for humanity?
She felt completely negative, desperately miserable. And lonely.
She was the Jen (p. 212)
Appropriately, it is in this penultimate section of the novel (headed "The Jen")
that Horace's suppressed frustration finally achieves release, just as Miss
Bisnauth is thinking:
He's only black, but he's intelligent. One day he may be a
famous writer, who knows? I must ask him if he's never tried his
hand at writing stories. He could begin with simple little tales like
The Jen .(p. 216)
and as Horace leaves the office for good, Mr. Reynolds is already making a
vow to "get him another job tomorrow easy as kissing hands." (p. 218)
The movement in the novel towards a resolution of inner conflict and, as it
were, a freeing of the "Jen" is reinforced by the arrival of the gifted, but as yet
obscure, writer, Mortimer Barnett, whom Miss Bisnauth recognizes as "a high
soul" in fact another representative of the "Jen":
I'm sure he's going to be famous one day. The world will
recognize him. Everybody treats him now as if he's a silly crank,
Arthur says. They say he's mad. It's always the way. (p 181)
Barnett's physical appearance reflects his inner stability:
He paused and looked about the office, a very faint smile of
inquiry on his face. A controlled smile in harmony with the rest of
him. (p. 179)
and his aura of personal warmth and integrity has an immediately infectious
quality. "A change has occurred in me" says Mrs. Hinckson after meeting him,
"not half an hour ago I was certain such a man never existed." (p. 210) After
talking to him, Mr. Murrain feels "as though he had had a spiritual purge"
(p. 206), and begins to think that:
in time to come he might yet achieve his dream of writing a
good novel. Or a good poem. This young man had given him a sudden
wild new hope; he had revitalized something in him something
which had been dying.
His "trapped-in-the-skin shudders", he suddenly realizes are cuied. When one
considers that Mortimer Barnett's theory of "telescopic objectivity" is, in fact,
Mittelholzer's technique in this novel; and that the impotence of the "Jen" -
the repression or atrophy of the creative urge often represents the writer's
worst fear22 it becomes possible to say that A Morning at the Office is, at its
deepest level, not only an associative effort aimed at creating a whole out of the
composite fragments of West Indian experience; but also a novel about an art
of fiction that can make possible the controlled release of the repressed
creative impulse. That this idea of the release of the creative spirit is of central
importance in the novel is implicit in W. J. Howard's assertion that "the tale
of the Jen structures every relationship in the book" 23. He interprets the
"Jen", however, as "a situation in which longing encounters frustration", 24
and leaves it at that, thereby missing the deeper significance of the "Jen" as the
latent, repressed creative urge. In fact, the "Jen" is obviously related to the well-
known Grimm fairy-tale of the "spirit (or "Jinn") in the bottle"25, a tale which
itself conjures up the dual nature of the Unconscious as a potential force capable
of causing irreparable damage as well as possessing magical,creative power.
The element of psychic manifestation in the novel (demonstrated when
Miss Henery's sexual imaginings place her en rapport with the "psychic plasm"
adhering to the desk-leg whereupon she feels a rough hand on her thigh)
reflects Mittelholzer's interest in the occult and his belief in the interpenetration
of the material and spiritual worlds; and serves to illustrate the unpredictable,
terrifying aspect of the suppressed, libidinal self. This is an element which
receives fuller treatment in other novels, such as My Bones and Flute (1955)
and of Tress and the Sea (1956) where inanimate objects and the natural
environment itself are charged with the (sometimes malignant, sometimes
beneficient) residues of human emotion. The main impulse in A Morningat the
Office, however, is a beneficial, associative one, and Mittelholzer's stated intention
in writing the novel as a debunking process, like Arthur Lamby's aim in writing
the"Jen" fairy-tale ("What Arthur was really trying to do in The Jen was to
debunk the old West-Indian nancy-story p. 211); belies the subtly-controlled
art with which he creates, from the superficialities of a typically fragmented
West Indian situation a hall of mirrors in which"one shadow behind another,
telescoped backwards to infinity" (p. 184) a momentary vision of wholeness.
1 The First was Corentyne Thunder (Eyre and Spottiswoode 1941)
2 F.M. Birbalsingh; Edgar Mittelholzer: Moralist or Pornographer? (The
Journal of Commonwealth Literature Heinemann Ltd. and University of
Leeds, July 1969, p. 88)
3 But see Wm. J. Howard: Edgar Mittelholzer's Tragic Vision (Caribbean
Quarterly U.W.I. Jamaica December 1970), and Louis James's introduction
to the Islands in Between (O.U.P. 1968) in which the novel's importance
is discussed, though briefly.
4 F.M. Birbalsingh: Edgar Mittelholzer: Moralist or Pornographer? op. cit.
5 A.J. Seymour: the 1967 Edgar Mittelholzer Memorial Lectures (George-
town, Guyana, 1968, p. 28)
6 Ibid. p. 32
7 P. Guckian: The Balance of Colour (Jamaica Journal March 1970, p. 41)
8 Louis James: The Islands in Between op. cit. p. 37
9 Margery Foster-Davis: (Caribbean Quarterly Vol. 4, 1950, p. 43)
10 P. Guckian: The Balance of Colour op. cit. p. 42
11 Anton Ehrenzweig; The Hidden Order of Art (Paladin 1970, p. 117)
One is also reminded of D.H. Lawrence's injunction "never trust the
artist. Trust the tale."("The Spirit of Place" from Selected Literary
Criticism Heinemann 1964, p. 297)
12 A.J. Seymour; private letter quoted in the 1967 Mittelholzer Memorial
Lectures op cit. pp 13/14. E.M. also, according to Seymour, described the
book as "a mere social document (very necessary, however) in the guise of
a novel." (p. 14).
13 The precisely described structural and architectural details of the office
reflect its restricting nature like that of the strictly "layered" society
The pink paint that covered it, though fresh-looking could not disguise
the fact that it contained many other layers. (p. 11)Miss Henery's desk,
thinks Mr. Murrain, forms, with his and Jagabir's, "an equilateral triangle,
Jagabir and I forming the points at the base and she the point at the top."
(p. 46. All quotations are from the Penguin Ed. 1964).
14 Patrick Guckian: "The Balance of Colour" (Jamaica Journal March
1970, p. 39).
15 I am indebted to W.J.Howard for the suggestion that the "Jen"'tale is
"the functional structure for interpreting A Morning at the'Office".
("Edgar Mittelholzer's Tragic Vision" op. cit. p. 20).
16 E.M.'s New Amsterdam diaries reveal the frustration of the would-be
writer imprisoned in the West Indian colonial situation. The entry of
30 March 1935 reads: "Depressed almost to point of insanity. Started
writing a novel. Spirits soared!" On 17th August 1935 he finds himself
"chafing to leave this disgusting hole of a town"; and on 16 November
1935 he records:
"Spirits continue fairly high, as result of literary creation "Mr.
Gore-Drary, Gentlemen" (a short novel) Saving every cent in hope of
going to London next year. Quite determined to go" The following year,
desperately disappointed, he attempted suicide. One is reminded of
Derek Walcott's bitter observation: "to be born on a small island,
a colonial back-water, meant a precocious resignation to fate." (From the
preface of Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays, Jonathan
Cape, 1972, p. 14).
17 In with a Carib Eye (1958) E.M. writes:
Unlike Georgetown, New Amsterdam is very near to the Jungle. You
can feel the mystery of unknown tracts of land simply by staring east
towards the Canje Creek. (p. 137).
In E.M.'s work, descriptions of the interior (especially up river along
the Canje) almost always convey a sense of threat and foreboding. This
quality of menace receives its most concentrated expression in My Bones
and my Flute (1955), where the "interior" becomes synonymous with
inexpressibly evil forces which attempt to engulf the characters: "the
jungle, glittering in the sunshine, reared up in two dense walls on either
bank, shutting us in." (p. 16).
18 This is almost exactly parallel with E.M.'s childhood experience, recorded
in a Swarthy Boy (Putnam 1963, p. 22) of his family's cross-eyed, Negro
19 Patrick Guckian points out the punning significance of the name: "Murrain
and his wife represent a blight on inter-race relationships" (From "the
Balance of Colour" op. cit. p. 41). In the Weather in Middenshot (1952)
the word reappears as a metaphor describing a particularly unpleasant
fog as "a white murrain upon Middenshot." (p. 100).
20 The connection between music and literature an important one for
E.M. as "associative" arts, is stressed by the fact that Miss Bisnauth's
mother gives her a copy of T.S. Eliot's Four Quarters for Christmas.
21 Miss Bisnauth's sense of sudden loss of creative vision a shutter seemed
to face her where there should have been an opening that emitted waves
of creative plasm. Positive colour departed from her surroundings;
everything took on a sepia hue, (p. 74) has a great deal in common with
E.M.'s New Amsterdam record of his own depression: Plenty hard work.
Rather good week. Really enjoyable But there is such an unaccountable
gulf in the soul. There is a lack of feeling, of emotion; a passivity. There
is no real joy in life and on the other hand there is not the slightest
sorrow. Can it be the aftermath of too much disillusionment? It is
curious. (Diary entry of 22 April 1933, my emphasis).
cf Virginia Woolfs observation of the importance, in her own life, of
writing: something very profound about the synthesis of my being:
how only writing composes it: how nothing makes a whole unless lam
writing. Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe
to order. (A writer's Diary ed. Leonard Woolf, Hogarth Press 1953, p.
23 W.J. Howard; Edgar Mittelholzer's Tragic Vision op. cit p. 20
25 In the tale by the Brothers Grimm, the spirit released by the woodcutter's
son first threatens to kill him, but is tricked into returning into the bottle.
The spirit promises to reward the boy and, when released, gives him a magic
cloth. E.M. recounts, in with a Carib Eye(1958) the Guyanese folk tales
about "Water People" (or "Fair Maids") which, as a child, he heard from
The Water People were sinister creatures not to be trifled with. If
you fell into the river after dark you could easily be pulled down to your
death by a Fair Maid" (p. 141).
Finding the comb used by one of the "Fair Maids" was considered great
luck, since, it conferred on the finder absolute power over these magical
creatures who could then be forced to make one rich.
HAMLET IN HAITI: STYLE IN CARPENTER'S
THE KINGDOM OF THIS WORLD
"Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all."
"In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear."
Between Hamlet's speech and Blake's lyrical utterance, a great transformation
took place in the English imagination, centering precisely upon the imagination's
relationship to reality Some archaeologist of words has, no doubt, recorded
somewhere all of the uses of the terms "conscience" and "consciousness"
between the Elizabethan age and our own, the far side of the Romantic period
whose first discoveries were made by Blake and his visionary company. His work
would show us that "conscience," that great nay-saying force in Hamlet's mind,
has evolved into "consciousness" or the. state of self-critical awareness of one's
actions in the world (although in Freud's concept of the "id," "conscience"
certainly lingers, fixated in the Victorian stage). As H. Stuart Hughes has
suggested, to the generation of European intellectuals of the 1890's "conscious-
ness" offered the only link between man and the world of society and history.
To Croce, the only faith modern man had retained after the fall of Christian
belief was his awareness of himself in the world. To Karl Mannheim, conscious-
ness was not simply critical of our actions: it was an action itself in the midst
of the world. Thought is praxis; it mediates between things and people just as
surely as physical actions mediate. Thus consciousness or self-conscious aware-
ness made cowards of some, fools and heroes of others. It has gradually become
apparent, to the intellectual descendants of Blake, Marx and Nietsche, that
thought does not merely comprehend the world; by the nature of its comprehein-
sion, it changes the world. Even the picture of the world as a static place, which
we often find in the work of a. great number of historians, acts to keep the
world as the writer hopes it to remain. "O Lady! we receive but what we give .
Coleridge told us, in his "Dejection" ode, that the human imagination was the
most vital element -of life in this otherwise "inanimate cold world": in
our life alone does Nature live The gods had come to reside, Hegel sug-
gested, in the breast of the human poet. Only the poet could give life to what
Wordsworth called "this universe of death." "Thus consciousness doth make
actors of us all" in the struggle to overthrow the tyranny of "mind-forged
But where in all this lies the Caribbean connection? What's Hamlet to Haiti?
Or Haiti to Hamlet? That is difficult to say in one breath. I cannot construct
a map to indicate the links in time and space that might make you see, as easily
as you might the connecting routes between L'Etoile and Nation on a map of
the Metro. But the gap which appears to exist between our seemingly European-
oriented interests and the matter of the New World, rather than suggesting an
absence of land mass, points up the fact that we simply have not charted the
Haiti, or so the Marcellin brothers, the nation's novelist team, tell us, is a
land of myth. For when black people arrived from the west coast of Africa
(to have their labour pressed from them like juice from cane), they brought their
gods with them. Like pious Aeneas and the Puritans before them, the uprooted
Africans of the Yoruba tribe reached the New World with images of their deities
in mind. Public life, to the enslaved black people of Haiti, was torturous, and
vodou offered them the chance to make private life palatable. In Haiti, Vodou
served as both church and Jacobin cell for the Afro-Caribbeans. The French
governor viciously suppressed the cult, but this only fostered solidarity among
the cultists. To the displaced African co-religionists, the dances of the vodou
rites conjured up the life of Africa itself, and such a ritual could not be suppres-
sed. It went underground to survive. As Jahnheinz Jahn has described it, secret
vodou gatherings "became the cell of the resistance. It needed only an efficient
ringleader to drive their angered spirits to rebellion."
Such leaders appeared some fifty years before the French Revolution. Run-
away slaves in large numbers took to the hills, formed communities, and amidst
the territory of the French plantation owners tried to make a free life based
upon the mores and economics of old Africa. As they grew in number, they
planned desperate guerilla ventures against the white landowners, hoping to
drive them from the island altogether. In 1751, at least 3,000 such slaves
roamed the mountains. When a leader named Mackandal was thrown up out of
their ranks, Haiti witnessed its first massive slave rebellion.
A one-armed man (having lost a limb in a sugar cane press), Mackandal was
a fearless guerilla leader. In the words of C.L.R. James, he
was an orator, in the opinion of a white contemporary equal in
eloquence to the European orators of the day, and different only
in his superior strength and vigour he had a fortitude of spirit
which he knew how to preserve in the midst of the most cruel
There was a mystical side to him as well, James tells us.
He claimed to predict the future; like Mohamet he had revelations;
he persuaded his followers that he was immortal and exercised such
a hold over them that they considered it an honour to serve him
on their knees ..
Mackandal built up an organization of black slaves throughout Haiti and
arranged that on a particular day the water of every house in the
capital of the province was to be poisoned, and the general attack
made on the whites while they were in the convulsions and anguish
But six years of planning came to nothing when Mackandal was betrayed,
captured, and burned at the stake in the center square of Port-au-Prince before
the eyes of many of his followers. The crowd later reported, however, that
Mackandal rose out of the flames; that he had transformed himself into a winged
beast that flew to safety before it was devoured by the fire. To the blacks of
Limbe, his home in northern Haiti, Mackandal had attained a kind of "revolu-
tionary immortality." This "immortality" has its origins in the nature of vodou
itself. In the vodou ritual, the human war chiefs assume the personality of the
god of war, Ogou Badaori (or upon occasion Ogou Ferraile, more often the god
of the blacksmiths, a fire deity); they dress in red robes or cloths, armed with
the ubiquitous and murderous machete. Ogou is martial and boisterous; he
smokes cigars and drinks heavily, but most important he is impervious to
physical harm. When the war leader assumes the attributes of Ogou, he is no
longer a man but a man "ridden" by the more perfect god. Such beliefs inspired
poorly-armed black leaders and their followers to overcome enormous odds.
(Mackandal, the story goes, was captured only because his "rider" Ogou became
Thus the Afro-Caribbean religion served a serious political function in Haiti,
as a revolutionary force that grew yearly as the means by which slaves worked
to overthrow the white planters. In spite of all prohibitions, the slaves travelled
miles to sing and dance and practise the rites and talk, writes C.L.R. James.
After 1789, the cultists used the vodou ceremonies as explicitly as any Paris
political club of the day. They exchanged political news and laid plans for their
In 1791, a new leader named Boukman appeared. He was Jamaican by birth,
and a fitting successor to the charismatic Mackandal. A vodou houngan or priest,
Boukman was as gigantic in stature as he was in importance, a tall strapping
figure who served as leader of the slave population of a large Cap Francais planta-
tion, and then as revolutionary chief of the 12,000 slaves (6,000 of them male)
who lived in this northern area of Haiti. The goals of the blacks had grown just
as their numbers had since the time of Mackandal. The former wanted simply
to drive out the whites. Boukman, in the wake of events in France, planned to
massacre all those Caucasians who lived in Cap Francais.
On the stormy evening of August 22, 1791, anxious to put the plan into
action in the face of the growing suspicions of Governor de Blanchelande,
Boukman called leaders from all over the province to a meeting in the forest on
the slope of Morne Rouge. Looking down at the peaceful plantations of Le Cap,
he administered vodou oaths by torchlight and sealed the fate of every Caucasian
man, woman and child on Le Cap. The religion of Africa now directed the
destiny of Haiti. Opening the prayer ceremony by slaughtering a hog, and
passing its blood around to be drunk, Boukman charged his fellow slaves to
follow the will of their gods:
The god who created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the
waves and rules the storm, though hidden in the clouds, he watches
us. He sees all that the white man does. The god of the white man
inspires him with crime, but our god calls upon us to do good
works. Our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs.
He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbol of the
god of.the whites [the cross] who has so often caused us to weep,
and listen to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the hearts of us all.
After the ceremony, the blacks descended to Le Cap where they destroyed
nearly all the plantations and executed all whites who lived in the region. Thus
began the revolution which continued for the next twelve years. The leaders
to come, Toussaint L'Ouverture, Dessalines, and Henri Christophe among them,
were the descendants of the Mackandals and the Boukmans who first forged
the links between the religion of the island and revolutionary action. These
commanders inspired in their troops a fervor European armies had not possessed
since the end of the holy wars of the Middle Ages:
I have seen a solid column [a French officer recalled the final battle
at Le Cap near the end of the twelve year war] torn by grape-shot,
advance without making a retrograde step. The more they fell, the
greater seemed to be the courage of the rest three times these
brave men, arms in hand, advanced without firing a shot, and each
time repulsed, only retired after leaving the ground strewn with
three-quarters of their troops. One must have seen this bravery to
have any conception of it But for many a day that massed
square which marched singing to its death, lighted by a magnificent
sun, remained in my thoughts, and even today after more than forty
years, this majestic and glorious spectacle still lives vividly in my
imagination as in the moments when I saw it.
Our observer neglects to mention that this "spectacle" was the first defeat of the
glorious army of Napoleon Bonaparte over a decade before its retreat from
Moscow! When the French sailed away from Haiti in 1784, their ranks were
decimated, and their precious colony became the property, at last,of the people
upon whose labour it had been built.
French counter-revolutionary activity had been most harsh. From the first
moments of rule, they had sought to divide the Haitian people by means of a
system so exact in its cruelty that it designated a ranking system among slaves
which included one hundred and twenty-seven shades of "black." What charac-
teristic element in the social imagination of the slaves produced a solidarity
so unbreachable in the face of such force? The answer lies in the nature of the
ceremony conducted by Boukman on that dark night in August of 1791. For an
animal sacrificed in the ritual was not only a gift to the loas, spirits;
its blood bound together those who made the sacrifice; it demanded
of each individual who voluntarily entered this ritual group absolute
confidence and complete reliability otherwise the blood of the
sacrificial animal would come over him and destroy him. That is,
the traditional blood cult of Dahomey [read Africa], which was
assimilated to the Voodoo cult and which swore the former slaves
to a community that was able, despite being badly armed, to oppose
a drilled European army, and which, despite many defeats, repeated-
ly stirred the rebellion up anew.
Just as to the Greeks of Homer's time the gods acted as part of Nature, the
loas performed their duties, especially the warrior spirits, within the bounds of
everyday reality. Miracles, as Spinoza argued with more than a little irony, are
those events which take place outside the natural course of things. By Spinoza's
definition, what happened on the battle fields of Haiti were not miracles at all,
but natural occurrences like those which occurred on the mythical plain of
Troy in which the loas came down from their haunts in the rarer air to aid the
Haitians in their battle against. the French. If in Troy, why not in Limbs? In
Ithaca Athena saw that Odysseus had reached the limits of his strength and joined
the battle against the imprudent suitors. Why couldn't the loas join the attack on
the French in Le Cap? While no one "could have guessed the power that was
born in them when Boukman gave the signal for revolt on that stormy August
night in 1791," the final battle at Le Cap (which convinced General Rochambeau
that it was time for a retreat from the island), was won by a population trans-
oscuro hermano, preserve
tu memorial de sufrimientos
y que los heroes passados
custodien tu magica espuma.
(.. dark brother, preserve
your memory of your sufferings,
and may the ancestral heroes
have your magic sea-foam in their keeping.)
wrote Neruda in his ode to Toussaint L'Ouverture, the great Haitian general.
Toussaint was duped by Napoleon's commanders into a meeting which led
to his capture and imprisonment, but the idea of freedom lived on in Haiti:
en la Isla arden las penas,
hablan las ramas escondidas,
se transmiten las esperanzas,
surgeon los muros del baluarte.
(... on the island the boulders burn,
the hidden branches spark,
hopes are passed on,
the walls of the fortress rise.)
The citadel, fortress and symbol of the power of Henri Christophe, the tailor
and pastry cook who rose to become Haiti's first dictator, rose, despite Neruda's
deliberate oversight in the matter, to proclaim that Haiti's newly won freedom
was already in ruins. The suffering of her people ironically became preserved
in the daily round of their suffering existence. If you have seen a production of
Genet's The Blacks, you'll have seen a portrait of life at the court of Henri
Christophe. As Alejo Carpentier has portrayed it years before Genet on a
typical afternoon at Sans Souci, the court of Christophe, one might find this
the little princesses, Athenias and Amethyste, dressed in guip-
ure-trimmed satin playing battledore and shuttlecock. A little
farther off, the Queen's chaplain the one light face in the whole
picture reading Plutarch's Parallel Lives to the Crown Prince
under the satisfied gaze of Henri Christophe, who was strolling,
followed by his ministers, through the Queen's gardens. In passing,
his Majesty's hand reached out carelessly to pick a white rose that
had just opened amid the boxwood clipped in the shape of a crown
and phoenix at the foot of the marble allegories.
But the crown had not risen, phoenix-like, from the flames of Christophe's
rule when the then thirty-nine year old Alejo Carpentier arrived in Haiti in mid-
1943. The synthesis of ornate European grandeur and neo-African civilization
Christophe had tried to effect lay in ruins throughout the country. To Carpentier,
however, the particular nature of these ruins was astonishing.
Long before he had set foot on Haitian soil, his imagination had been arrested
by the fantastic vitality behind the seemingly mundane life of the Cuban peasant.
In his first novel, called Ecue Yamba O! ("Save Us, O Lord!" in the dialect of
the Afro-Cuban nanigo cult, the Cuban counterpart of vodou), he wrote about
the powers of the neo-African forms in Cuba, mainly from the point of view of
Menegildo Cue, the somewhat backward son of a sugar cane farmer; a kind of
expose of the living conditions of the cane cutters at the same time exulting
in their way of life a kind of surrealist Grapes of Wrath. In his adolescence,
Menegildo's mother Salome "initiated him into the great mysteries, whose dark
designs exceeded man's comprehension
In this world, the visible adds up to very little. Creatures lived
deceived by a cloud of gross appearances, under the compassionate
gaze of superior entities. Oh, Yemaya', Shangd, and Obatali, spirits
of infinite perfection .! But hidden bonds existed between men,
a power that could be mobilized through a knowledge of their ar-
cane causes The space between two buildings, between two
sexes, between a she-goat and a girl, showed itself to be full of latent
powers, invisible and very fertile, and it was possible to put that
space to use in order to attain whatever end. The black cock which
pecks an ear of corn is unaware that its head, cut on a moonlit
night, and set above a certain number of grains extracted from its
maw, can reorganize the realities of the universe. A wooden doll,
baptized with Menegildo's name, becomes the dictator of its living
double. If there are enemies who would stick a rusty pin in the
doll's side, the man would receive the wound in his own flesh.
Four hairs belonging to a woman appropriately worked some distance
from her hut the distance does not matter if the sea does not
intervene can "fix" her unfailingly to a lover. The jealous female
can securely obtain the happiness of love by the opportune use of
the water of her intimate ablutions. Just as the whites have
populated the atmosphere with coded messages, symphonic hours
and English lessons, men of colour able to perpetuate the great tradi-
tion of a body of knowledge delegated over the centuries from
father to son from kings to princes, from initiators to initiates,
know that the air is a fabric of seamless filaments which transmits
the powers invoked in ceremonies whose role reduces them com-
pletely to the condensing of a superior mystery for use against
something or on behalf of something If it is accepted as
indisputable truth that an object can be given life, that object will
live. The golden chain which contracts will announce danger. The
possession of a printed prayer will protect from poisonous bites
The bird foot encountered in the middle of the road is tied pre-
cisely to the one who stops in front of it since, out of hundreds, that
person alone has been sensitive to its warning. The design was traced
by the breath on a plate by virtue of a dark determinism. Law of
the face or cross, of star or shield, without any name possible! When
the saint deigns to return across the distance to speak through the
mouth of a subject in a state of ecstasy, the words are alleviated of
all vulgar motive, of conscious ideas, of all false ethic opposed to
the expression of its integral meaning. It is possible that in reality
the saint never speaks; but the profound exaltation produced by an
absolute faith in his presence comes to endow the word with its
magical creative power lost since primitive time. The word, a ritual
in itself, reflects then a near future which the senses have already
perceived, but which reason still grasps for, the better to control
it These practices stirred the deepest and most primordial
reflections upon human existence It is enough to have a con-
ception of the world different from the one generally inculcated in
the mind for what seems marvellous to cease being marvellous and
place itself within the order of normally verifiable occurrences.
It was clear that neither Menegildo nor Salome had ever under-
taken the arduous task of analyzing primary causes. But they held
an atavistic conception of the universe which accepted the possible
magical disposition of any creation. And in this took root their con -
fidence in a superior logic and in a power capable of penetrating
the difficulties and utilizing the elements of this logic which never
showed itself hostile in any way. In the emotional oracles caused
by a ceremony of witchcraft, they regained the encounter with the
thousand-year old tradition old as a dog howling at the moon -
which permitted to the man, naked upon an earth which is still in
a bad state after its final convulsions, to find in himself an instinc-
tive defense against the ferocity of creation. This man preserved the
most lofty knowledge, admitting the existence of things invisible.
And if some spells did not give the desired effect obviously the fault
lay with the faithful who, searching carefully, always forgot a ges-
ture, an attribute or some essential posture.
Carpentier travelled by jeep from the coastal area where the earliest uprisings
took place to the Palace at Sans Souci and the Citadelle La Ferrier.
After having experienced the by no means false magic of the land
of Haiti, after having encountered magical signs in the red roadways
of the Central Plateau, after having heard the drums of Petro and
Rada, I have come closer to that marvellous reality the exhausted
pretentions certain European literary movements of the last thirty
years tried recently to revive.
How unsuccessful the French surrealists had been in depicting "lo real
maravilloso," the "marvellous reality" of the things of this world. The Compte
de Lautreamont (Isadore Ducasse), the Uruguayan ancestor of the French poets,
dramatized the metamorphosis of men into animals in the sixth canto of his
seminal poem "Les Chants de Maldoror," but here, in Haiti, such a transforma-
tion was a fact of Haitian social history. The story of Mackandal was a case
in point. And Henri Christophe, to cite another example, was an actual monarch
who in word and deed acted far more cruelly than any of the sadistic monarchs
of the surrealist narrative verse. The feeble attempts of Europeans to trick
meaning from existence by humorous juxtaposition of images paled alongside
the effects of everyday existence in Haiti. The surrealists, Carpentier discovered,
tried for thirty years to approximate this reality in verse and failed. They were,
he concluded, part of the same European decadence they seemed to decry.
Born in 1904, the son of a Russian mother and a French father, Carpentier
had come to Haiti and these realizations by a roundabout route. He left
Cuba at the age of twenty four he was sent into exile by the dictator Gerardo
Machado Y Morales after having first served nine months in prison for signing a
manifesto declaring that Machado was "an ass with claws." When he was
released from prison, he befriended the poet Robert Desnos (who was visiting
Havana as a journalsit) and went to school in the salons of the surrealists in
Paris (where he had studied piano at the age of sixteen). He became friendly
with Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, and Benjamin Peret, worked on the Second
Surrealist Manifesto, and wrote several ill-fated surrealist tales in French. By
1932 he had come back to writing in his native language, completing the novel
he had begun during his imprisonment in Havana (the novel from which I just
read a lengthy quotation) Ecue Yamba O! For all its wealth of ethnological
information, Ecue Yamba O! was a stiff, willed, decidedly pastoral view of
Cuban life, and, as Carpentier himself later admitted, rather mechanical in its
production of "automatic" imagery in the surrealist mode. We might add that it
lacks a historically interesting plot, tracing as it does Menegildo's progress from
birth to death solely in light of his relationship to naniigo (Cuban vodou) cult.
Nearly ten years had passed since Ecue's publication, and Carpentier had not
written much new fiction. On a brief vacation from work on a Communist party
radio station which he had begun upon his return from a Europe on the verge
of World War Two, he found himself travelling across this landscape which had
only been reproduced in the imaginative creations of the surrealists and their
precursors, a landscape that inspired him to make new considerations about
The faith he found among the Haitian people, the faith which produced
events such as Mackandal's resurrection from the flames, was not confined to
Haiti, he concluded. The history of America, he realized, was full of similar
events and figures the search for the Fountain of Youth, the quest for the
city of El Dorado, the flourishing of myth in Central America. The American
continent had still not completed its tales of the creation of the universe; its
Hesiod had not yet stepped forth to write its Theogony. What was the history
of America, Carpentier asked himself, but the chronicle of"lo real maravilloso"
a marvellous reality, a glimpse of which he had caught in his travels across
Haiti. And what more inspiration did a novelist need in order to write a book
but this recognition?
Carpentier's emphasis on the importance of place to the evolution of a new
style is itself not a new notion. Bruno Snell has argued that Virgil thousands
of years before founded his bucolic style in the Arcadian hills. The broadest
nationalistic version of this idea, we know, was put forth by the "German"
poets as early as Goethe's time when "Germany" as a political unit had not yet
even come into existence. The formation of a specific new style to celebrateand
explicate a specific location seems to be a particularly romantic invention. The
elevation of the awareness of this problem to an element of culture itself is a
peculiarly American problem. When Hawthorne, as you'll recall he did, told his
readers in the "Preface" to The Marble Faun that he could not write romance in
an American setting, he dramatized this new element in Western culture. So did
Chateaubriand when he painted America as Eden.
The problem of finding a style with which to treat American material was
expressed by poets such as Bryant in the nineteenth century when the burden
of English rhetoric still lay heavy on their tongues. But not until the end of that
century did North American writers primarily Twain, and James produce the
basic elements of a stylistic strategy with headquarters on this side of the Atlan-
tic. Thus American writers, aware of the European tradition, struggled to
achieve the beginning of their own as well. One may, for example, look to
Faulkner's view of nature as a link to European romantic notions of American
landscape. Exit Chateaubriand chased by a Bear. Faulkner conjured up The Bear
not to serve Christine doctrine but to criticise it. While still pursuing Chateau-
briand, we might also recall D. H. Lawrence: Lawrence, in the course of trying
to write in an "American" style (by which he tends to mean short, choppy
sentences ending with an exclamation point), made in his Studies in Classic
American Literature perhaps the most famous statement of the importance of
place in relation to a new national style. (The American "place," according to
him, was really a state of"displacement" [emphasis mine], zero ground in the
quest for a new society. Frankly, I prefer the contemporary Trinidadian V.S.
Naipaul's fictional renderings of this problem to Lawrence's "theoretical"
exclamations on the subject.) Carpentier's response to the "matter of Haiti"
must be viewed in light of this characteristic self-conscious American struggle
to develop a style consonant with the new problems attendant upon living in
The precursor of this style may be found in the verse of Lautriamont, whose
"Les Chants de Maldoror" I mentioned earlier. In that poem, fantastic subject
matter is described in a "naturalistic" manner, as though the monsters the poet
called forth from the briny deep were as much a part of nature as elm trees and
spring rain. One might also look to the grotesque prose of the early nineteenth
century Argentine poet and political satirist Echevarria for an attempt to depict
the striking aspects of Latin American life. But the distinction between
Carpentier and his literary ancestors is that he pretends that he is merely
describing life rather than interpreting it. He is a literary realist then, rather than
a fantasist. As Fernando Alegria has said about his method, Carpentier began to
explore Latin American reality as though it possessed "a system of symbols
which European culture could only conceive on an abstract, static level." In
other words, with regard to Haiti, Carpentier assumed that its reality was more
comprehensible and natural because it possessed those qualities which in them-
selves were usually found in the artificial arrangement of language or forms in
art. Here one must make oneself aware of the legacy left to Carpentier not only
by those specific poets whom we know he admired but by the romantic poets
in general and, one might even suggest, by the Augustinian tradition. This sense
of "organization," which seemed to the romantics to loom large behind life's
seeming chaos, and for whose explication Carpentier's kissing cousins in Paris,
the surrealist group, had worked up a series of methods particularly automatic
writing and the "shock" treatment of unusual imagery may be called, as
Erich Auerbach has hinted, an "aestheticist" view of life. Aesthetics was the
religion of the romantics, the substitute for the faith which led early Christian
poets and painters to depict the organization of the world clearly and boldly.
Now certain romantics tended to separate themsleves from life and dwell among
the pillars of an aestheticist temple. ("Poetry makes nothing happen," as
Auden tells us.) But others, like Blake, Shelley, Byron, and Keats (although the
latter is usually grouped among those who retreated from natural experience;
his "poetry of earth" gives us the world rather than subtracts from it) found
that their aesthetics wedded them to experience to a degree which allowed them
to explain the similarities between poetry and life, but not the differences.
Poetry linked them to nature; the imagination was a "natural" activity. And yet
poetry was more important in the natural round of activities than, say, running
a livery stable. It was life, but life intensified. As Byron wrote in "Childe
'Tis to create, and in creating live
A being more intense, that we endow
With form our fancy, gaining as we give
The life we image, even as I do now.
What Carpentier discovered in Haiti was a life more intense than poetry, a
society whose beliefs synthesized the possibility for faith (now dissipated) we
find embodied in the European tradition and a powerful mythic tradition
stemming from their African forebears. Myth, the collective belief in myth, and
its attendant faith in the reality of local gods, was part of the stuff of everyday
Caribbean social reality. Unlike Hawthorne's America, which was a place where
European romance could not flourish, Carpentier's America held tales "impos-
sible to situate in Europe." After three months, he returned to his native Cuba
to begin the research for such a tale.
The completed narrative was published in Mexico City in 1949 Carpentier
called it El Reino de este mundo ("The Kingdom of This World"). It recounts
the story of the Haitian Revolution from its origins in the uprising led by
Mackandal and Bouckman up until its dissipation in the imitation European court
of Henri Christophe and the mulatto counter-revolution which followed
Christophe's death. Throughout Carpentier draws on the same sources as those
consulted by historians of the period, such as C.L.R. James. For example,
the rites led by Boukman (which I mentioned earlier) appear in El Reino with
Boukman's concluding sermon following the exact form as the sermon cited by
Suddenly a mighty voice arose in the midst of the congress of
shadows, a voice whose ability to pass without intermediate stages
from a deep to a shrill register gave a strange emphasis to its words.
There was much of invocation and much of spell in that speech
filled with angry inflections and shouts. It was Bouckman, the Jamai-
can, who was talking he stated that a pact had been sealed
between the initiated on this side of the water and the great Loas
of Africa to begin the war when the auspices were favorable. And
out of the applause that rose about him came this final admonition:
"The white men's God orders the crime. Our gods demand
vengeance from us. They will guide our arms and give us help.
Destroy the image of the white man's God who thirsts for our tears;
let us listen to the cry of freedom within ourselves."
The immolation of the captured Mackandal is, as well, portrayed with historical
accuracy. It depicts both the awareness of his black followers that he flew out
of the flames and escaped and the destruction of his body (of which more later).
The work is, in fact, studded with actual historical personages. Toussaint
L'Ouverture, although not a major figure in the narrative, is referred to in passing
in an early chapter with particular reference to his pre-revolutionary occupa-
tion. He is the cabinet maker who
had carved the Three Wise Men in wood, but they were too big for
the Nativity, and in the end were not set up, mainly because of the
terrible whites of Balthazar's eyes, which had been painted with
special care, and gave the impression of emerging from a night of
ebony with the terrible reproach of a drowned man.
We first hear of Henri Christophe in his capacity as the chef at the Auberge de la
Couronne, a Cap Franjais restaurant, the job he held before joining the colonial
artillery. Minor figures, too, have lavish paragraphs bestowed upon them. For
example, at the end of Chapter V of Part Two, Ti-Noel, the Haitian slave from
whose point of view the action is seen, has gone with his master Lenormand de
Mezy into exile in Cuba while Napoleon's army attempts to suppress the rebel-
lion in Haiti. In the cathedral in Santiago de Cuba, Ti-Noel discovers the rehearsal
of a Christmas cantata directed by a dried-up, loud-voiced, swarthy old man
called Don Esteban Salas, the Cuban composer about whom Carpentier had
learned much while doing the research for a history of Cuban music in 1945. Ti-
Noel finds it, though, impossible to understand why this choirmaster,
whom everyone seemed to respect notwithstanding, was
determined that the singers should enter the chorus one after the
other, part of them singing what the others had sung before, and
setting up a confusion of voices fit to exasperate anyone. But this
was undoubtedly pleasing to the verger, a personage to whom Ti-
Noel attributed great ecclesiastical authority because he went armed
and wore pants like other men. Despite these discordant symphonies,
which Don Esteban Salas enriched with bassoons, horns, and boy
sopranos, the Negro found in the Spanish churches a Voodoo warmth
which he had never encountered in the Sulpician churches of the
Other familiar historical figures appear, among them Pauline Bonaparte and
her husband LeClerc, the general whom her brother dispatched to Haiti to put
down the rebellion, and Corneille Breille, the Capuchin confessor to Henri
Christophe whom the dictator murdered by bricking him up in the oratory of
the Port-au-Prince palace. The historical accuracy that lends weight, balance, and
an inviting texture to this short novel only 50,000 words in length plays, however,
a subsidiary role to the reconstruction of the fictitious characters, such as
M. Lenormand de Mezy, who represents the French presence in the country,
and the aforementioned Ti-Noel, whose transformation from young slave to
elderly revolutionary forms the central thread of the narrative.
Mario Vargas Llosa, the novelist and critic, has observed that Carpentier
"the political witness" of the earlier Ecue Yamba O! becomes in El Reino de
este mundo "an alchemist, transforming the true events of the Antillan past
into myths But the Cuban's use throughout this narrative of the conscious-
ness of Ti-Noel would seem to imply that, rather than forego the role of poli-
tical observer, Carpentier recognized that Haitian politics and myth were in-
extricable. Crucial to the character of Ti-Noel both as a psychological whole
and as a figure representative of his class and people is his belief in the reality
of what are traditionally depicted as Haiti's myths.
The narrative, with the exception of several ironic chapters in which de
Mezy's and Pauline Bonaparte's consciousnesses ("Thus she spent her time
between siestas and waking, feeling herself part Virginie, part Atala ")
give the tone and texture to the scene, presents a world whose epistemological
assumptions are that of the devout vodou cultist. This becomes clear in the
very first scene of the novel, in which we are introduced to Ti-Noel, Lenormand
de Mezy's slave, and his advisor on the purchase of a new breeding stallion.
Ti-Noel notices a peculiar coincidence of heads. First he sees the pale wax heads
in the barber shop, then the pale calves' heads in the butcher shop next door,
and then, on the prints hanging from wire by clothespins in the adjacent book-
seller's stall, the head of the French king. The logic of this connection is
ironically portrayed: "Habia abundancia de cabeza aquella manlana "
("The morning was full with heads "). But the tone here is not ironic: when
the interchangeability of men and animals is referred to in the next few passages,
we can clearly hear the lyrical rather than ironic music of the imagery. Consider
Ti-Noel's thoughts on the religion of his African homeland, engendered by his
catching sight of an engraving depicting an African royal personage receiving a
French official. At that moment, the young slave recalled
those tales Mackandal sing-songed in the sugar mill while the oldest
horse on the Lenormand de Mezy plantation turned the cylinders.
With deliberately languid tone, the better to secure certain effects,
the Mandingue Negro would tell of things that had happened in the
great kingdoms of Popo, of Arada, of the Nagos, or the Fulah. He
spoke of the great migrations of tribes, of age-long wars, of epic
battles in which the animals had been allies of men.
But the lyrical element in the narrative (as well as the definitely ironic
texture of the passages devoted to the French characters) forms only a corollary
to the major direction of the prose. Irony and lyric are subsumed under the
aegis of a larger realistic style. When Mackandal, Ti-Noel's mentor, discovers
that lycanthropy is an integral part of nature not only in Africa but in Haiti
as well, we're given the first taste of that prose. After losing his arm in a sugar-
mill accident, Mackandal spends his time out in the pasture with the cattle.
There, in the grass,
to his surprise he discovered the secret life of strange species given
to disguise, confusion, and camouflage, protectors of the little
armored beings that avoid the pathways of the ants.
He and Ti-Noel sometimes sneak up into the mountains to listen to the tales of
old Maman Loi, which at times were
of extraordinary animals that had had human offspring. And of men
whom certain spells turned into animals. Women had been raped by
huge felines, and at night, had substituted roars for words.
The role of the belief in lycanthropy however, becomes secondary to the role
lycanthropy itself plays in the narrative. These "cosas de negros," as Lenormand
de Mezy calls them, form the heart of the novel's vision, For,
as he had the power to take the shape of hoofed animal, bird, fish,
or insect, Mackandal continually visited the plantations of the Plaine
to watch over his faithful and find out if they still had faith in his
return. In one metamorphosis or another, the one-armed man was
everywhere, having recovered his corporeal integrity in animal guise.
With wings one day, spurs another, galloping or crawling, he had
made himself master of the courses of the underground streams, the
caverns of the seacoast, and the treetops, and now ruled the whole
island. His powers were boundless. He could as easily cover a mare
as rest in the cool of a cistern, swing on the swaying branches of a
huisache, or slip through a keyhole. The dogs did not bark at him;
he changed his shadow at will. It was because of him that a Negress
gave birth to a child with a wild boar's face. At night he appeared
on the roads in the skin of a black goat with fire-tipped horns.
One day he would give the sign for the great uprising, and the Lords
of Back There, headed by Damballah, the Master of the Roads,
and Ogoun, Master of the Swords, would bring the thunder and
lightning and unleash the cyclone that would round out the work of
men's hands. In that great hour said Ti-Noel the blood of the
whites would run into the brooks, and the Loas, drunk with joy,
would bury their faces in it and drink until their lungs were full.
This power, unlike the alienating metamorphosis of the Old World one finds in
Kafka's work, allows Mackandal, even as he seems to be burning at the stake,
to transform himself into a thing with wings, fly out over the crowd in the square
and out to sea:
Mackandal was now lashed to the post. The executioner had picked
up an ember with the tongs. With a gesture rehearsed the evening
before in front of a mirror, the Governor unsheathed his gross
sword and gave the order for the sentence to be carried out. The fire
began to rise toward the Mandingue, licking his legs. At that moment
Mackandal moved the stump of his arm, which they had been unable
to tie up, in a threatening gesture which was none the less terrible for
being partial, howling unknown spells and violently thrusting his
torso forward. The bonds fell off and the body of the black man
rose in the air, flying overhead, until it plunged into the black waves
of the sea of slaves. A single cry filled the square:
"Mackandal saved!" (Mackandal sauve!)
Pandemonium followed. The guards fell with rifle butts on the
howling blacks, who now seemed to overflow the streets, climbing
toward the windows. And the noise and screaming and uproar were
such that very few saw that Mackandal, held by ten soldiers, had
been thrust head first into the fire, and that a flame fed by his
burning hair had drowned his last cry. When the slaves were restored
to order, the fire was burning normally like any fire of good wood,
and the breeze blowing from the sea was lifting the smoke toward
the windows where more than one lady who had fainted had
recovered consciousness. There was no longer anything more to see.
That afternoon the slaves returned to their plantations laughing
all the way. Mackandal had kept his word. He remained in the King-
dom of This World. Once more the whites had been outwitted by
the Mighty Powers of the Other Shore.
The prose here is itself lycanthropic, magically real, offering up one element of
the incident, the historically accurate, and then transmuting it into another, the
mythologically accurate, and giving special weight not to either but to both, to
each "reality" as it relates to the other. The constituent element of Carpentier's
linguistic reality is thus the interplay of these elements.
Neither fantasy nor naturalism, this new style, a self-conscious embodiment
of the recognition of the partial truths of both of these modes, offers many
possibilities for the literature of the future some of which is already upon us
in the work of Julio Cortazar, Gabriel Garcia Maiquez, in Latin America, and
in the fiction of Doris Lessing, Bernard Malamud, and John Gardner in our
own language, to name some of the main practitioners, conscious and uncon-
scious, of the "magical realist" style. But before going on to some final words
about the relationship of this style to our own lives, I would like to backtrack
We must all admit that what to European minds was usually taken to be
fantasy was regarded in Haiti as an aspect, an important aspect of reality. The
battles that took place in those days between the Haitian irregulars and the
French army, those historic engagements in which Napoleon's forces suffered,
ten years before the retreat from Moscow, their first major defeat, contained as
much "fantasy" as fact. (You will recall the words of the French officer who
marvelled at the sight of the Haitian irregulars marching toward him.)
The collective reality of the Haitian revolutionaries thus becomes a part of
Caribbean history. And as we follow the progress of Ti-Noel from his state as a
piece of property on the de Mezy plantation to his final appearance as an old
and wise houngan of the revolutionary vodou rite, his belief that he can trans-
form himself into an animal becomes the objective sign of his consciousness.
Like Carlos Castanada in The Teachings of Don Juan, who turned into, he believ-
ed, a dog, Ti-Noel turns into a goose, and this belief becomes in these passages
the objective textual reality. History in this tale is as much an integer of fantasy
as fantasy is history.
Ti-Noel is neither simply the means by which the tale of the Revolution is
told nor a quaint folkloric figure whose exotic consciousness may have some
appeal for American readers. His changing perception of the life and history of
Haiti holds meanings more important than these provincial concerns. For while
he feels the triumph of the early days of the Revolution, in the last part of his
life he recognizes that to some Henri Christophe's regime, "ese inacable retofiar
de cadenas, ese remacer de grills, ese proliferation de miseras" (this endless
return of chains, this rebirth of shackles, this proliferation of suffering), offers
proof "de la inutilidad de toda rebeldia" (the uselessness of all revolt). Yet his
final vision, "un supremo instant de lucidez." (a supremely lucid moment),
carries him beyond resignation and willessness. Even as the mulatto tyrants,
the latest rulers in the chain that begins with the ascension of Christophe to the
throne, are dividing up the little kingdom Ti-Noel had established for himself
and his followers on the ruins of the former de Mezy plantation, he dramatizes
the optimism which Ernst Bloch has called, in his essay of the same name, the
Principle of Hope "der Prinzip Hoffnung"):
He lived, for the space of a heartbeat, the finest moments of his life;
he glimpsed once more the heroes who had revealed to him the
power and the fullness of his remote African forebears, making him
believe in the possible germinations the future held. He felt count-
less centuries old. A cosmic weariness, as of a planet weighted with
stones, fell upon his shoulders shrunk by so many blows, sweats,
revolts. Ti-Noel had squandered his birthright, and, despite the
abject poverty to which he had sunk, he was leaving the same
inheritance he had received: a body of flesh to which things had
happened. Now he understood that a man never knows for whom
he suffers and hopes. He suffers and hopes and toils for people he
will never know, and who, in turn, will suffer and hope and toil for
others who will not be happy either, for man always seeks a happi-
ness far beyond that which is meted out to him. But man's greatness
consists in the very fact of wanting to be better than he is. In laying
duties upon himself. In the Kingdom of Heaven there is no grandeur
to be won, inasmuch as there all is an established hierarchy, the
unknown is revealed, existence is infinite, there is no possibility of
sacrifice, all is rest and joy. For this reason, bowed down by
suffering and duties, beautiful in the midst of his misery, capable
of loving in the face of afflictions and trials, man finds his greatness,
his fullest measure, only in the Kingdom of This World.
This sermon ended, Ti-Noel then hurls himself and his followers into-the
battle against the mulatto "surveyors" with renewed force. And in a conclusion
which marks, as Carpentier understands it, the end of the first stage of the
struggle for Caribbean independence, Ti-Noel, the slave turned revolutionary,
like Mackandal before him, fades away into the seascape. The prose turns opaque,
eliminating him from its reality. "Un gran viento verde," "a great green wind"
sweeps across Haiti from the sea, shaking apart the last vestiges of the colonialist
epoch by shaking down the few buildings of the old Lenormand de Mezy plan-
tation. Only the salty traces of the Dionysian figure of Ti-Noel black
Dionysos! fleck the Haitian hillsides.
Thus, by means of the strength of mind-formed liberty, the Haitians snapped
their man-forged manacles. Or, perhaps, their gods did it for them? you suggest.
The paradox of whether gods create men or men gods seems as irresolvable as
the question of whether material conditions form consciousness or consciousness
transforms material conditions in the world. At least we won't resolve it today.
Carpentier's Haitian drama, however, by convincing us that history holds
fantastic and mythical elements within its borders, extends our notion of the
possibilities of literary creation and mind-forged social change there are
more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy.
ALFONSO REYES: CRITIC AND ARTIST
Alfonso Reyes, Mexican humanist, critic and writer, exemplifies his belief
in the existence of a reciprocity between the artist's life and his work.
El deslindel, his most important work in literary theory and criticism,
is concerned basically with establishing lines of demarcation between
literature, history and science, as well as a consideration of the relationship
of literature with mathematics and religion. Throughout the seven stages of the
demarcation process Reyes' ideas concerning the essence of literature and of
literary criticism are revealed.
In this study I will discuss Alfonso Reyes' approach to criticism and his
description of the process of criticism. Then I will analyse one of his creative
works, "Las roncas", to show that there is application of his theory in practice.
Reference will also be made to the complementary work to El deslinde,
Reyes' Apuntes para la teora literaria (Obras Completas, volume XV).
Reyes describes El deslinde as prolegomena to a literary theory. In it,
however, we have his definite ideas on literature and literary criticism, many
of which had appeared in embryonic form in earlier critical essays. In El
deslinde, they are now fully developed and appear throughout the demarcation
process as well as in his introductory "Vocabulario y Programa"
His study of literature in El deslinde constitutes some prolegomena in the
sense that he has not established a system for literary criticism, but is keenly
aware of the elasticity of treatment that should be accorded literary norms and
concepts. They cannot be rigidly applied, he says, since each work demands
its own method. (E.D. p. 270). For in the same way that Alfonso Reyes believed
that "there are no recipes for creating beauty" (Apuntes p. 465), so he
believed also that there is no one system of criticism which can be applied to
all works of literature, although there is a certain methodological approach which
should be used.
Reyes has arrived at his theory of criticism by the most plausible of means -
by first answering the question: What is literature? For, in order to know how
to deal effectively with a phenomenon, one must be cognizant of its nature.
Indeed, David Daiches points out2 that it was because the question "How to
read a book?" was being so loudly discussed in the 1940's with no reference to
"Why read a book?" and "What is a book?" that he decided to write his study,
which appeared three years after El deslinde.
The valuable contribution of El deslinde to modern literary criticism becomes
apparent when it is realized that this book was written in 1944, predating David
Daiches' A Study of Literature (1947) and Critical Approaches to Literature
(1956), Northup Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Rene Wellek's Concepts
of Criticism (1963), Jean-Paul Sartre's Qu'est-ce que la literature (1948),
Wilbur Scott's Five Approaches to Literary Criticism (1962) and Leo Spitzer's
Lingustica e historic literaria (1945). Since El deslinde was so widely acclaimed
by Latin American critics, one feels that the fact that it has not taken its place
alongside the above-mentioned books in the United States is perhaps because the
ideas are not spelled out in the same way as they are in these later books, but
have to be gleaned from his arguments throughout the work.
In these subsequent studies, however, his ideas have been confirmed and devel-
oped upon, rather than rejected.
A. His Approach Defined
J. Middleton Murry has said that "the true literary critic must have a human-
istic philosophy." 3He believes that there is much to be learned from the
Greeks about the principles of art and criticism for their approach to art and to
life are the same. By this criterion, Alfonso Reyes is a true literary critic. He
possessed an all-embracing humanism and a profound interest in Hellenic ideas
and the entire Greek experience, which led him to a study and interpretation of
much of their literature, to the writing of his critical work, La critica en la
edad ateniense, and of his poetic-drama, Ifigenia cruel. Reyes was a man of
cosmopolitan spirit, a diplomat, a humanist, an erudite man of letters -
prolific writer of essays, poems, short stories and a poetic-drama a man with
an expansive view of life and a deep-felt commitment to literature. It is quite
consistent with this type of personality, then, that he has a broad methodological
approach to literary criticism, an integral view of the literary product. For an
adequate interpretation of a work, Reyes sees the necessity of applying the
historical, psychological and stylistic methods. He says:
La exegitica opera conforme a tres grupos met6dicos princi-
pales: historicos, psicologicos, estilisticos. Solo la integracion de estos
metodos puede aspirar a la categoria de ciencia. (E.D. p.28)
He combines these three approaches in his analysis of a work.
Reyes is not a formalistic critic, but exemplifies a combination of the two
trends which characterize literary criticism in Latin America. These include,
according to Alberto Zum Felde4, the bibliographical and the methodological
approaches. The first consists of an interpretative commentary of works and
authors based on such elements as intuition, taste and culture of the critic.
Reyes employs this procedure in his shorter, less profound critical essays,
particularly his "siluetas" which are portraits of authors with an evaluation of
their work. Examples of these are "Silueta de Lope de Vega" and "Prdlogo a
Quevedo", in Capitulos de literature espaliola. Here we get a psychological,
philosophical and aesthetic interpretation based on subjective norms. More
typical of Reyes is the other trend the methodological type. This is the kind
which he deems necessary for the thorough criticism of a work. It employs
criteria based on universally valid norms, dealing with the historical, psycholo-
gical and stylistic aspects of the work. This was the method used by critics such as
Pedro Hennquez Urena and Marcelino Mene'ndez y Pelayo who had a profound
influence on Reyes during his early years. Of Reyes, Zum Felde says: "llega a los
mas magistrales trabajos de teor'a y metodologia literaria que se hayan escrito
en America"5 His is an integral criticism, for he employs no single approach,
but rather a combination of several, depending on the requirements of the
particular work with which he is dealing. It is like the approach employed by
Americo Castro in El pensamiento de Cervantes. Castro describes it and its
relationale in this way:
Tiene much razon B. Croce al rechazar, como mitodo de investi-
gacion literaria, la bisqueda desesperadamente minuciosa de
cuanto pudo ver, leer o sentir el artist en torno a si, como si estas
cosas fuesen la material del arte, cuando la verdadera material del
arte, cuando la verdadera material del arte "no son las cosas, sino
los sentiments del poeta, y e'stos determinan y explican aquellas,
o sea como y For que'razo'n dl se torna a aquellas cosas y no a otras,
a aquellas cosas mas que a otras" (Ariosto, Shakespeare e Corneille,
1920, p.33) [La razo'n de las preferencias del escritor inexplicables
en su detalle es, sin embargo, inseparable de la posicioh de aquel
respect de la vida y de la cultural en las cuales existe. A la forma
exterior de la creacion literaria corresponde siempre una forma
Castro studies Cervantes' perspective to show reasons why he selects certain
subjects rather than others, and why he treats them the way he does. This results
in a consideration of the literary and social milieu in which the work was
produced. This is the kind of approach which Reyes uses, for he considers the
work as a product of the author. He, moreover, applies the humanist posture to
literary criticism. Always profoundly interested in man, in toto, he sees the
literary work as a document of universal human experience as well as an
expression of feelings resulting from the author's own private experiences.
In El deslinde Reyes describes literary fiction as "otro modo mas cabal de
verdad" (E.D. p. 172). It seems that the humanist's belief that man's destiny is
a search for the truth is apparent in Reyes' comprehensive critique which seeks
to illuminate the work in its entirety, treating not only the writer's style but
considering also the reasons why he was predisposed to write in that way. In
referring to the importance that Reyes attached to influences, Valle-Incla'n
says in a letter to him:
Since you are curious about knowing literary influences and unravel-
ing their importance in writers, I am going to tell you those which
I think most strong in the hour of my youth: Our friend Canedo,
on noticing the influence you mention, that of a Portuguese with
whose work I am totally unfamiliar, must have made a mistake.
It could well be the influence of an unknown third person, both
on the Portuguese and on myself. On the other hand, few have
seen the influence of Chateaubriand. In the memoirs of the Marques
de Bradomin (Sonata de invierno), the visit which the Marquis de
Bradomm (Sonata de invierno), pays to the king and queen
remembers intentionally that which the romantic viscount made to
Charles X in exile. (Memoirs of beyond the grave). (December 20,
We see that a writer often is not conscious of certain influences on his work or
may not care to admit them. This shows, nevertheless, that Reyes is interested
in the atmosphere in which a work was engendered a most comprehensive and
integral approach to the understanding of the work itself.
B. The Process of Criticism
Reyes describes the life of literature as a dialogue between the creator who
proposes and the public who responds with tacit or expressed reactions. The
expressed reactions are those of the literary critic. Reyes says that the reader
forges an image in which he inevitably puts something of himself, and in which
there may be a divergence from the image which has been proposed tohim.
Reyes implies the necessity of "good" reading, a concept which has since been
developed by C.S. Lewis in his book, An Experiment in Criticism.
For the thorough illumination of a work, Alfonso Reyes considers the follow-
ing steps in criticism to be necessary: impression, exegesis and judgement
(E.D. pp. 27-28).
From his reading the critic gets an impression, the effect which the work
produces on his feelings, "es un eco provocado por la obra" (E.D. p. 28).
Reyes explains that the sensitivity to receive an impression is the result of a
general and human faculty. Although, in El deslinde he does not explicitly state
that the depth or accuracy of the impression (as borne out later by the analysis)
is determined by the level of one's sophistication in literary matters, which helps
to sharpen sensitivity, I feel that this is implied in his belief in a total commitment
to literature. Moreover, in La experiencia literaria he states that, although any
reader will receive an impression from a reading, the quality and extent of that
impression depends on the preparation, both inherited and acquired, of each
The next stage in the criticism of a literary work, Reyes points out, is the
exegesis or analysis. He calls it "la zona de especialistas," (E.D. p. 28) forit re-
quires the application of specific methods and knowledge. An integration of
the stylistic, the psychological and the historical methods are necessary because
the writer lives in definite surroundings and, therefore, cannot completely
emancipate himself from the empirical world. So he necessarily uses data around
him to express his feelings and emotions. For a thorough illumination of the
work, then, it should be analyzed as both a historical and a mental creation.
Some consideration should be given to the psychological and cultural formation
of the writer and to the influences of his life and of the intellectual milieuwhich
are discernible in his work. It is because Reyes sees a continuum in life and work
that he considers a knowledge of the mental and social ambients a necessity for
a better understanding of the work itself.
The final stage in criticism is the evaluation. This judgement of the work has
to be approached objectively, and literary value must be the pre-eminent consider-
el juicio es la estimacion de la obra, no a la manera caprichosa y
emotional del impresionismo, sino objective, de dictamen final,
y una vez que se ha torado en cuenta todo el conocimiento que
provee la exegdtica ha de enfocar de preferencia el valor
literario y considerar los valores extraliterarios como subordi-
nados a la estetica. (E.D. p. 28)
Reyes says that since each work is a world with its own destiny and its own laws,
what the critic ought to do is investigate the work and judge it according to its
own norms and not with standards alien to it. (E.D. p. 270). But he admits that,
in practice, this is easier said than done.
He has not only repeatedly stressed that a requisite for a good critic is
flexibility, but he demonstrates it in his own approach. He says that the critic
cannot be rigid in his norms, for what may be considered an abuse of literary
liberty does not necessarily reduce the aesthetic value of the work (E.D. p. 186).
We see this same undogmatic posture assumed by Rene'Wellek in his treatment
of literary concepts,0 and expressed by David Daiches in the Preface to the
new edition of A Study of Literature, in 1964:
The more I read and think about and talk about literature,the more
dubious I become of fixed categories and text book definitions and
the more important it seems to me to expose myself to the reality
and variety in literary works themselves 1
In his discussion of language, Reyes points out that since literature is essentially
a linguistic phenomenon, a study of a literary work means a study of its
elaboration (E.D. p. 267).
Alfonso Reyes, therefore, recognized the value of the formalist approach as
well as that of the other procedures in the criticism of a literary work, but the
essence of his method lies in his emphasis on the desirability of combining
these various methods to produce an integral criticism.
In his article, "The Humanistic Critic," Douglas Bush expresses Reyes' views.
He says that if the purpose of criticism is to elucidate works of art, the new
criticism has come nearest to that end. For it stresses correct reading and has
replaced vague impressionism with rigorous concrete analysis, but its main
weakness lies in its indifference to the historical method. For this indifference
may result in incomplete and misleading interpretations. Concurring with
Reyes' belief precisely, he states:
the historical and analytical and other methods, such as the
psychological have their evident merits and shortcomings, and
one moral that emerges from the briefest discussion is that no one
approach is adequate by itself.12
As a critic, Alfonso Reyes is concerned not only with the finished product but
with the tools (the data) and the workman (the artist's creative process), and how
he has manipulated his material (his style). Alberto Zum Felde who subscribes
to Reyes' critical method says:
la obra de todo poeta y escritor es inseparable de su
biografia, es decir, de su persona misma, como lo es del ambiente
historic que le ha tocado en suerte; su infancia, su complexion
fisica, su temperament, su formacidn intellectual, sus enfermedades,
sus peripecias sentimentales, sus relaciones con el mundo, el clima
spiritual, y social, las corrientes esteticas que le han afectado, y
todos los demis factors piblicos y privados, literarios y extra-
literarios que intervienen en la suma y smtesis viva de su personalidad.
Tienen tanta importancia para la critical como el analysis de las formas
estilisticas de su arte, que son el resultado y la expresidn concrete
de todo eso.13
This summarizes Alfonso Reyes' approach to literary criticism.
Blusas rojas, pafiuelos verdes al cuello; la falda, como quiera.
Esas hembras de voz tan ronca, de fa'ciles c6leras, son todas
hembras, todas conscientes de la maldicfon. Andan con un ritmo
animal, pisan el suelo de verdad, usan unas alpargatas plans. De
alli que la cadera, siempre en juego, sepa quebrarse graciosamente;
pero casi siempre se desarrolla en exceso con los anios, y esas mocitas
terrible de quince se pierden al crecer.
Mujeres trompos, mujeres anforas. Siempre van a la fuente: que
se yo si quiebran el cintaro. El botijo les es natural, como el espejo
o la manzana a la diosa. Lo han criado en sus curvas, lo han brotado
de sus cinturas; lo abrazan al pecho y se balancean, mirando fosco,
como si abrazaran a un amante. Cuando van a llenarlo a la fuente,
todo el mundo puede pedirselo y echar un trago al aire. Entonces
hacen corro para comadrear, hablan de tarabilla, carcomiendo todas
las palabras, a pie quebrado, transformando las consonantes para
tropezar menos en ellas, con instinto y con natural majeza.
Y hablan ronco, ronco, echando del busto una voz tan brava que
nos desconcierta y nos turba. Y aguantan, si las miramos, y hasta
gritan algo: acuden al reclamo siempre. Y contestan el requiebro,
prestas, en una lengua hueca y conventional que las defiende mejor
que los pudores.
iQue' quieren? Quieren que nos maten. ,No es eso amor?
Quisieran devorar al macho, apropiarselo integro, como la hembra
del alacran. Cercenarle la cabeza, como la ara'na, al tiempo de estarlo
embriagando: mascullarlo, desgarrarlo, echarlo a la calle a puntapies,
tembloroso todavia de caricias.
C. "LAS RONCAS"
"Las roncas" is a poematic essay from Reyes' collection entitled Cartones
de Madrid, written between 1914 and 1917, and deals with first impressions of
a person who has newly arrived in Madrid. Reyes had arrived in Madrid in 1914,
and he said that the period of ten years that he spent there was "the central
period of my life, the best that this earth has given me since the childhood years
spent with my parents"14
In El deslinde, Reyes says that the frontier between prose and verse is not a
very definite one. "Las roncas" clearly illustrates this principle. It is a plastic
description of a typical Madrilenian scene of women who fetch water at a foun-
tain. Reyes paints the scene with great artistry and vividness so that it comes alive
in the mind of the reader. This is consistent with his belief that in literature
"todo se somete a la intencidn" (E.D. p. 255), because here his intention is to
give his unique impression of this Spanish custom.
The title itself, "Las roncas",15 points out the central topic of the essay
and immediately focuses attention on "the hoarse-voiced women." Reyes then
begins his description with the following sentence which forms the first para-
graph: "Blusas rojas, pafiuelos verdes al cuello; la falda, como quiera" (p.75).
This succinct statement is yet extremely suggestive. The words reveal the out-
standing aspects of the scene the women's attire and its dominant colours.
As in all Reyes' writing, a scene is never presented in a cold, matter-of-fact
manner. The presence of women is at once observed by the first things that
strike the male eye clothes, colourful clothes which enhance the body.Reyes
portrays simple clothes, the precise attire for "aguadoras." The skirt is variously
and carelessly worn, "como quiera." This paragraph, characterized by economy
of words, forms a perfect introduction. For, like a painter, the writer prepares
the main lines from which we expect a type of woman to emerge. The attention
is ready to read on with the certainty that a delightful account is coming, with-
out wasted words, in a lively and precise style.
The next facet of the scene portrayed is the sort of women that are seen by the
fountain: "Esas hembras de voz tan ronca, de fa'ciles c6leras, son todas hembras
todas conscientes de la maldicion." Employing the connotative value of words,
Reyes refers to them as "hembras conscientes de la maldicion" indicating their
sensual appeal. He develops this by referring to their way of walking: "andan
con un ritmo animal, pisan el suelo de verdad", they plod along with a firm step,
and since they wear flat shoes, their hips, always in a balanced movement, swing
gracefully. These hips, Reyes notes, become enlarged with advancing age, and the
girls suddenly change from terribly attractive teen-agers to overweight, graceless
women: "pero casi siempre se desarrolla en exceso con los anos, y esas mocitas
terrible de quince se pierden al crecer." Reyes uses such expressive phrases as
"pisan de verdad" to indicate the firm step of their feet, "siempre en juego" for
the rhythmic swinging of the hips, and "mocitas terrible" to describe the sex-
ually-appealing attractiveness of the strong and domineering teen-age girls. By
these connotative words, he communicates not only the scene itself but also the
peculiar sensations produced by the vision of those women. This is why he
asserts in El deslinde that the concern of the literary artist is: "expresar una
verdad mis cabal que la verdad ordinaria porque el suceder real es sclo una
pequefia porcio'n de la verdad .. La explosion literaria hace saltar los tabiques."
(E.D. p. 254) He explains that the truth or fact stated as such, without any spe-
cial literary qualities, as he uses in this essay, is inferior to what an author tries
to evoke. The literary explosion the force given to the description bursts
through the walls of meaninglessness of ordinary expression. This is what Reyes
is doing in "Las roncas" by using words charged with implications to depict the
women at the fountain, as well as the effect they have on the observer.
Throughout this short essay, he employs a succinct form of expression which
is full of suggestiveness, illustrating his notion that the essence of the writer's art
lies in the fact that: "la series verbal que expresa debe ir creando en la mente del
lector, de una manera magica, aquella otra series fantasmal de explicaciones que no
se escriben." (E.D. p. 36) He begins the third paragraph with this concise
sentence: "Mujeres trompos, mujeres anforas." By means of it, he makes us see
their physical overdevelopment, even fatness. We notice that, in this depiction
of the shape of the women, Reyes has used nouns rather than adjectives; "mujeres
trompos" is a colloquial and a literary form at the same time. The writer has
chosen this form for its economy and resultant expressive force as well for the
emotional impression it creates. Indeed, he tells us that one of the uses of
colloquy is "impresionar de cierto modo emotional al que escucha."(E.D. p.243).
The next sentence: "Siempre van a la fuente: que se yo si quiebran el
cantaro" states a habit: going to fetch water. Reyes' playful mind springs from
the habit of "fetching water" to a guess about breaking their water-jars. The
suggestivity of this statement is varied: It recalls the story of the milkmaid, or,
perhaps, there is a somewhat risque'connotation. Then he continues his account:
"El botijo les es natural, como el espejo o la manzana a la diosa." He points out
how carrying a water-jar is a natural habit with them, just like using a mirror is,
or like an apple goes with the goddess."La diosa" here could refer to the
goddess Aphrodite or Venus or to a goddess any goddess. Reyes customarily
uses words that may have multiple meanings or references.
He further stresses the women's habit of carrying water-jars, in these sentences:
"Lo han criado en sus curvas, lo han brotado de sus cinturas" To him, the jars
seem to have grown in their curves, to have sprung from their waists -to be part
of their physical make-up. These sentences are very effective in communicating
the idea of how natural a part of them these jars appear to be. The statement
"lo han brotado de sus curvas" is a bold, daring one in which the intransitive
verb becomes transitive, with apparent disregard for conventional grammar. It
exemplifies Reyes' affirmation that for the writer
La gramitica es un primer dato. Hay que pasar por ella Por eso
afirman los estilistas que el lenguaje no esta acabado de hacer. No lo
estara' nunca. En este sentido affirma Valery que la poesia intent
crear un lenguaje dentro del lenguaje, y bien pudo igualmente decir:
fuera del lenguaje recibido. (E.D. p. 272)
So in his poematic essay, Reyes has employed a usage which is outside
of conventional grammar to facilitate his expression.
He continues by telling how affectionately they hold these jars: "lo abrazan
al pecho ... como si abrazaran a un amante" This sentence, 'they hug it asif they
were "hugging a lover," indicates that they hold the jar tightly, so that it will
not break, but also fondly.
The aspects of the scene which are depicted show the keen perception of the
artistic creator. For Reyes sees not just a group of water-women, but their
shapes and their jugs recall Greek goddesses and amphoras. He sees details of
the scene which would normally escape the casual observer, such as the natural
way in which the jars seem to sprout from their waists. This is why, in
El deslinde, Reyes states, using the setting of the sun as an illustration:
en la puesta del sol acontecen muchas otras cosas diferentes y priva-
tivas para cada uno; cosas en que la mayoria no repara, por atrofia
constant o por indiferencia casual; cosas que el poeta percibe y
dice por oficio. (E.D. p. 173)
Reyes, with the perception and skill of the writer, sees a variety of things in this
typical Madrilenian scene, but those things have little significance taken indi-
vidually. They are all brought together to give fresh new life to the scene and
produce a pleasurable experience for the reader. The pleasurable experience will
be commensurate with the interpretative capacity of each reader. Some readers
will barely grasp the facts; others will be able to enjoy it a great deal. Moreover,
whereas the casual onlooker, because of indifference or mental atrophy, would
see only the brilliant aspects of the scene, the artist's peculiar sensibility makes
him see aesthetically valuable aspects as well. These are the features which
suggest other things in his mind. They evoke certain sensations and feelings
which he conveys to the reader.
The writer describes the women's custom of gathering in groups to gossip:
hacen corro para comadrear, hablan de tarabilla, carcomiendo todas
las palabras, a pie quebrado, transformando las consonantes para
tropezar menos en ellas, con instinto y con natural majeza.
He uses words which realistically portray their characteristic speech: "de
tarabilla" describes their rapid talk which sounds like a clapper; "carcomiendo
las palabras" connotes the idea that, in the rapidity of the chatter, words are
half-pronounced, and, therefore, seem half-eaten, since some of the letters are
silenced. He tells us that the ends of many words are unarticulated, they are
heard "a pie quebrado", and consonants are transformed so that they can be
slurred over. They will not interfere with the speech, since they are not
"stumbled over" But this manner of speaking is performed with ease and with
a kind of gaudiness so that although, grammatically, the women speak carelessly,
their language is characterized by a certain precision and a peculiar attractiveness,
a "natural majeza"
One of the dominant facets of the scene is the sound of the women's voices.
This is indicated by the title of the essay, "Las roncas", and repeated in the
second paragraph as "hembras de voz tan ronca" and again stressed in the
fourth paragraph with: "Y hablan ronco, echando del busto una voz tan brava
que nos desconcierta y nos turba." The poet describes men's reaction to the
sound of this hoarse, harsh voice; "nos desconcierta" includes the writer and,
perhaps, men in general, or, at least those who hear them for the first time. The
sound of the voice repels and disturbs them. The use of "y" at the beginning of
the paragraph, a modernistic stylistic device, serves to indicate that the sound
of the women's voices and their aggressiveness pervade the entire scene so far
described. Reyes next tells how they customarily boldly respond to male solici-
tations in a hollow voice: 'contestan el requiebro, prestas, en una lengua
hueca y conventional que las defiende mejor que los pudores." They are always
ready with an answer, using the conventional lingo, rather than a new, clever
expression, for this protects them more effectively than the usual female
Finally, attention is directed to their very aggressive and destructive nature:
iQue quieren? Quieren que nos maten. ,No es eso amor? Quisieran
devorar al macho, apropiarselo ntegro, como la hembra del alacrin.
Cercenarle la cabeza, como la arafia, al tiempo de estarlo embria-
gando: mascullarlo, desgarrarlo, echarlo a la calle a puntapids,
tembloroso todavia de caricias.
Reyes compares them to the female scorpion and to the female spider. He is
describing their primitive tendency to intoxicate and destroy whomever has
amorous relations with them. The comparison of these women with insects,
illustrates Reyes' idea that "El milagro del estilo esti en evocar conotaciones
insospechadas en principio." (E.D. p. 212) It is an unexpected yet very effective
comparison in conveying to the reader these women's aggression and cruelty.
Reyes seems to be alluding to love interpreted as an aggressive struggle of the
sexes, exemplified by certain animal species like the scorpion and the spider,
wherein the male eventually is the loser, indeed, is sacrificed. By depicting these
women in such light, one can tremble for the males who fall "victims" to their
attractions. Reyes communicates this feeling by the use of words charged with
meaning and forceful suggestiveness: "macho" and "hembra" emphasize the
two sexes, in their most primary connotation; "apropriarselo" indicates the
women's possessiveness, "cercenarle la cabeza", "to clip", "decapitate", shows
their cruelty. Then, their treachery is conveyed by "al tiempo de estarlo
embriagando", for it is when the men are intoxicated or enraptured that the
women are most cruel. Giving us a realistic male view, though not be taken
literally, the writer describes how these women, to prolong the satisfaction in
their victory, sink their teeth in their victim's flesh, tear him up, cast him out
into the street, a pile of human flesh still atremble by their caresses.
In this one-page essay, Reyes, by his extremely suggestive style, presents in
vivid form, his impressions of the hoarse-voiced water-women of Madrid. In this
short, precise sketch, we learn of such things as their attire, their customary way
of walking, of talking, of treating men. With the keen perception of the literary
artist, Reyes uses words with maximum implication, which enable the reader to
come into such close proximity with these women that he can identify their
characteristics more completely than he would be likely to do from a long
sociological or psychological study. For not only do we see them in our imagi-
nation, but we find them disconcerting and repulsive. We, indeed, react
emotionally to them. Reyes indicates his reaction, not only by description,
but by using sentences which insinuate a dialogue:
"iQue quieren? Quieren que nos maten. (No es eso amor?" By thus
conversing with the reader, he elicits an emotional response. The use of "nos"
here suggests that every male, including, apparently, the author, feels a certain
shudder and attraction. The question following immediately is intriguingly
referring to the meaning of love in its primitive, unrefined forms, but echoing
as far as the highest and most refined forms of it. Typical of the approach of the
essayist, Reyes, in most of his works, leaves the reader pondering over
some question concerning general human experience. He creates this reflective
mood in the reader particularly by the form of his question "LNo es eso amor?"
He could have said this in various ways: "Eso es amor" (and that's that!) or,
iEs eso amor? (maybe yes, maybe no). But the form he has used indicates a
positive view, but asks the reader to confirm or refute it. Therefore, it leaves
the thoughtful reader pondering the question and trying to throw some light
into the eternal mystery of the essence of love.
This essay, as well as exemplifying many other ideas and principles expressed
in El deslinde clearly illustrates Reyes' notions regarding the literary use of
language, as it differs from the historical and scientific usages. For, whereas the
latter two present empirical data largely in an objective way, we see, in this
essay, how this data when presented artistically, communicates the realistic scene,
but goes beyond this to evoke feelings and elicit responses and, indeed, portray
"una verdad mas cabal que la verdad ordinaria." (E.D. p. 254)
Sheila Y. Carter
1 Alfonso Reyes, El deslinde in Obras Completas, XV (Mexico: Fondo de
Cultural Economica, 1963). The page numbers for quotations from this
book will be indicated in parentheses after the quotations.
2 David Daiches, A Study of Literature, p. vi.
3 J. Middleton Murry, Aspects of Literature (London: W. Collins and Co.,
1920), p. 7.
4 Alberto Zum Felde, Indice crntico de la literature hispanoamericana,
Vol. II (Mexico: Editorial Guarania), p. 552.
5 Ibid., p. 552.
6 Americo Castro, El pensamiento de Cervantes (Madrid: Editorial Noguer,
1972), p. 24.
7 Quoted in Barbara B. Aponte, Alfonso Reyes and Spain (Austin: University
of Texas Press, 1962), pp. 77-78.
8 C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, London: Cambridge University
9 Obras Completas XIV, p. 109.
10 Rent Wellek, Concepts of Criticism, New Haven: Yale University Press,
11 David Daiches, A Study of Literature, p. v.
12 Douglas Bush, "The Humanistic Critic," Kenyon Review, XIII (Winter,
1951), p. 85.
13 Alberto Zum Felde, Indice crltico de la literature hispanoamericana,
Vol. 1, p. 591.
14 Letter to Enrique Diez-Canedo, August 6, 1931. (In Alfonso Reyes'
Archives, Mexico City).
15 This one-page essay is from the Obras Completas, ii, p. 75.
TITLE: Let me explain to the Reader Why I didn't get around to finishing that
poem on the Commune.
On the fly-leaf of his anthology La Commune de Paris, 18 mars 28 mai
1871 I read in Adamov's large, masculine, scrawling writing;
"A Therese Retamar,
et pour le moche
avenir, et le
present, qui sait?
La Commune de Paris
But this dedication to my older daughter can't date from when I read the
book for the first time, in 1960.
It must be some time later, when he was at home (what year was that?),
And I saw his face close up, incredibly similar to Humphrey Bogart's more
flexible, disjointed, eyes bulging;
It must be from then, when he also gave me the extraordinary Le printemps
71, and not in sixty nor sixty-three, in his little hotel room packed with books,
nor in sixty-five, drinking grog in a cafe'.
But it is in sixty that the book burns in my memory: that year in which my
daughter had already dedicated it to me with a scrawl (which makes us tender
now) on the inside cover,
And in which I read it and underlined furiously, because it was the moment
of learning history all over again, because we had been dragged by the hair into
history, singing, wailing, fearing, hoping.
Reading anew, or for the first time, Marx, Lenin, the books I used to buy
in the afternoon in the Communist bookshop,
Le Globe, and the new ones Maspero
Began to publish and which I sought out in La Joie de lire, a scant few steps
From the church of St. Severin, where I had gone some years back with Ri-
cardo Vig6n, and where Dante is reputed to have been some centuries back.
While I read The Civil War in France by Marx, and re-read (as if 1 had laid
eyes on it for the first time) Lenin's The State and Revolution
In Paris, almost facing the Seine, with the Eiffel Tower in one comer of the
Fidel is making the world explode over there, swamping newspapers with
news that is our life. There are dramatic editorials on oil which speak of red
flags crossing the Atlantic,
There are beautiful nationalizations like a dawn seen through palm trees.
And then that speech at the U.N., and the somewhat cynical journalist who
feels, even he, that things are different, and suddenly starts talking
Of Robespierre, the French Revolution, the Spanish language being born anew.
How could one not return to the Isle where history's vortex lies, lies too
The eye of the hurricane, or rather the hurricane that is about to unleash
itself at any moment.
If God exists, Nietzche despaired, why aren't I God?
And Bloy: the only sorrow here below is not being a saint.
Which became transposed in those days to: if Fidel, Che, Camilo, Baul,
Why aren't I one of them? And also: it's hard to be the contemporary of
(I've always wanted to write a poem starting with this verse, and I've never
managed to progress beyond this hendecasyllable. Now I leave it here.)
To which, some year later, a friend (who doubtless felt the same) replied
That there was no need to have a Sierra Maestra complex, that there was room
for all in history,
As long as you commit all the fire you have, all the light, all the blood.
In my memory I can scarce separate the night that Edu made me drum out on
the table to make sure I was really Antillian,
From a paragraph like this of Adamov's:
The French bourgeoisie, seeing the danger, showed its true face -
that of ferocity. And these valets of the bourgeoisie, who are too
often the artists, also showed theirs which was singularly and
deplorably akin to it. From Flaubert, a genial novelist, to the
doddering old Edmondo de Goncourt, from the uncommitted poet
Theophile Gautier to the detective Maxime du Campe, all/footnote:
"No, not all. There was Rimbaud, who wrote:
"Paris is being peopled anew" Some more others. And those
of the Commune, of course."/bore out the marxist thesis of
the primary connection with a social class.
Or this other:
And again, the writers. Was it necessary to disguise the fact that
the young Zola before the Dreyfus case joined the lamentable
chorus of moderates, of the reticent? Hugo, also, to be sure
But he reconsidered and really defended the besieged Communards,
and was the first, the first of the lot, to call in his thunderous voice,
for total amnesty for those who and he knew it held the future.
It is easy to understand; neither in Marx nor Lenin nor in Adamov's
Was I reading the past, but questioning the future. The future that was
growing over there, and whose wave
Lapped the most removed shores.
On March 19th, 1971, I wrote the proceeding verses at one go.
They were to form part of a poem essay on the Commune.
And also, evidently, on many other things: shall we say on our Commune,
on history as we live it, not as we read it,
And on the way in which certain writers behave when the people are
assaulting the sky-
But that day I had to go to a gathering, to that gathering which waits like
a puddle in the middle of life,
And when I got back, I had no more verses: The flame had momentarily gone
Of that need, the strangeness which demands to be put into words,
With a touch of music and truth,
And which I can't light up at whim, like a radio or an editorial for the
(Although even the editorial needs a touch of that strangeness).
Some days passed. I hoped to continue the poem at any moment. I took up
my notebook this same one where I now write and when I met good Adolfo,
I told him yes, I was working, that I was going to give him something
different for the issue of the Gaceta on the Commune.
But the poem had been halted like a waterfall frozen by winter or a
Where the form of imminent fall is really the form of stopping. I hoped,
nevertheless, hoped confidently, that the verses would flow again.
But what flowed anew weren't the verses, but history itself. I mean, the theme
of the poem flowed again,
That to which I aspired to add a few words more till I made it intelligible and
unified like a story or a face.
In these conditions, how to write a poem when its theme sprouts anew, buds
and sparks anew,
Moves forward, takes on body in the foreseeable letters, the foreseeable
Dullnesses, incomprehensions, cowardices, arrogancies, tragic frivolities of
which Machado had spoken?
What happens to the novelist whose characters, suddenly real, start living
on their own? I don't know. I only know
That that poem was swallowed, lived by reality.
I beg the patient reader who has reached this far, to examine Dear Adamov's
observations. Let him read them carefully, then
Let him read more recent texts. It may seem a cheap trap,
Those texts weren't written to exemplify Adamov's lines,
They were written because it seems that history also has its laws of gravity
Its stones that fall with the opaque ignorance of stones, I am also sorry for
my truncated poem. These lines of circumstances can't finish it.
I console myself thinking that life is all a circumstance, although somewhat
greater. Those supposedly eternal poems will also be swept away like a newspaper
Let's see if I am more lucky next time.
Havana, 19th March and 10th September, 1971
Roberto Fernandez Retamar
translated by J.R. Pereira.
AN INFINITE CANVAS
Review of Wilson Harris's Companions of the Day and Night (Faber, 1975. 1.95
SI view the novel as a kind of infinite canvas, an infinity. By
infinity I mean that one is constantly breaking down things in
order to sense a vision through things. And that applies to charac-
ters as well." (Wilson Harris, interview in Kas Kas University of
Texas 1972, p.52)
Companions of the Day and Night, his most recent novel, is another
addition to the "infinite canvas" of Wilson Harris's work. There is a remarkable con-
tinuity of imagery, style and theme between his thirteen published works of fiction,
which may be regarded not as separate works, but rather as several aspects of one
continuing oeuvre. He is, as Anthony Burgess wrote in 1965 ( reviewing The Eye
of the Scarecrow in The Spectator)
a writer creating, in instalments, one of the major fictional
statements of our time."
The Eye of the Scarecrow (1965) had been Harris's first attempt at a
wholly "free construction of events in the medium of phenomenal associations all
expanding into a mental distinction and life of their own" (p. 13), a kind of "bio-
graphical" fiction in which the form of the novel already fluid in the earlier books-
became a reconstruction of memory in which the narrator's whole consciousness drifts
backwards in time, each remembered event or experience acquiring in the process
subtle, new, interconnecting threads of meaning. In this way, past experience returns,
re-vitalized, bearing submerged, "buried communities", vestiges of suppressed or
hidden psychic elements. A wider, more compassionate knowledge, a re-integration of
the divided psyche is the result: a new "I" emerges from the prison of historical,
linear time. The nameless narrator ("Idiot Nameless") is able, with genuine humility,
to accept the difficult task of psychic re-construction, "the uncovering of inner
The hero of Black Marsden (1972), Clive Goodrich, another Everyman suffer-
ing from "the malaise of the twentieth century", lack of "authentic" existence,
attempts like "Idiot Nameless" to write his own "book of Infinity", a diary in which
he records factual events as well as dreams and fleeting impressions in order to "build
a new eye of the Scarecrow." (p. 94). In Companions of the Day and Night,
a sequel to Black Marsden, Goodrich receives from Marsden a collection of manu-
scripts, sculptures and paintings the "Idiot Nameless collection", the work of an
unknown man, a tourist, whose dead body has been found at the base of the Pyramid
of the Sun at Teotihuacdn in Mexico. As Goodrich explains in the "Editor's intro-
duction", the collection reveals "doorways through which Idiot Nameless moved"
(p. 13) and as he edits and translates the writings into a novel, he is aware of "the
mystery of companionship in those pages and of a frightening wisdom they em-
bodied "' (p. 15). This is, of course, the continuous, creative process of psychic re-
construction implicit in all of Harris's work.
It is interesting to notice that another modem novelist, the late Malcolm Lowry
(another so-called 'difficult' writer) also intended his work to be seen as a continuous
process of discovery a "Voyage that Never Ends"2, and, as a matter of fact,
Companions of the Day and Night resembles Lowry's Dark as the Grave
wherein my Friend is Laid (Cape 1969) in certain ways. Lowry and his second
wife Margerie Bonner visited Mexico in 1945, both of them making copious notes and
jottings of their observations and experiences. Lowry later worked these notes up into
705 pages of typescript the draft of a new novel. After the author's death, the con-
fused "bolus" was eventually "translated" into the present novel by Douglas Day and
Lowry's widow. They had, as Day puts it, "a formidable mess" from which to work.
In much the same way, Goodrich, in Harris's novel, edits the "voluminous papers
and diaries" of the "Idiot Nameless collection", attempting to translate it all into a
novel. The "Idiot Nameless collection" has also come out of a visit to Mexico, and
represents, like the random notes of Lowry's hero Sigbjprn Wilderness, the complex,
subjective response of a sensitively aware mind to the spirit of place. In both novels
there is a remarkable gravitational pull: both convey a strong sense of downward
movement, of descent into a foreign landscape and culture. Goodrich as editor sees as
essential the need to convey Idiot Nameless's "pre-occupation with the theme of
gravity" (p. 14), and Lowry's book begins with a great plunging sweep that marks the
downward movement of the novel as a whole:
The sense of speed, of gigantic transition, of going southward, down-
ward the sense at once of descent, tremendous regression dropp-
ing straight down the world, straight down the map (p. 19)
But the differences between the two novels are more significant than their
superficial similarities. For Lowry/Sigbjmr's reaction to the Mexican landscape and
culture is negative, egocentric, strongly tinged with a self-consciously Caucasian sense
of doom and guilt:3
He was treading. over a sort of spiritual battlefield, in which
Sigbj0rn, Cortez-like was the conqueror . and by walking straight
into the past like this, it was asking them to have their revenge. On
this level the future scarcely existed (p. 96)
It is clear that Sigbjom is a man descending into his own destructive, intensely private
hell. The diaries and writings of "Idiot Nameless", on the other hand, are positive,
visionary glimpses through the special historical and cultural background of Modern
Mexico of an all-encompassing reality. For the Idiot it is "a descent into a past that
seemed his own future." (p. 19) The static polarities of conqueror/conquered, civili-
zation/savagery, victor/victim are broken up through a creative revision, a re-sensing
of historical reality.
The novel's title comes from the motifs of the ancient Aztec calendar-stone
where they appear as components of a 13-day cycle ("companions of the day") and of
a 9 day cycle ("companions of the night"). Days 8 and 9 are called "dateless days"4
which absorb into the 9-day cycle the "missing" 4 days. Harris's novel also attempts to
represent and embody a reality which includes and allows for the numinous or "magi-
cal" element of human experience; the missing component of historical, dead time.
By arguing for the reality of the creative imagination as a means of questioning
monolithic attitudes, of creating a genuine dialogue between cultures, Harris in all his
work seeks to address the problem of 20th century Man's lack of "authenticity", of
wholeness. The anxiety of Modern Man, reflected in the recent upsurge of interest in
the Occult, the worldwide "sightings" of U.F.O.s,5 exacerbated by the recent dis-
coveries in science of Black Holes in the universe, the alarming concepts of "anti-
matter" and "Faustian time" (which seem to threaten our view of an orderly, linear
reality) is hinted at and counterpointed in Companions of the Day and Night
by reference, for example, to the Aztecs' fear of loss of the sun and the consequent
degeneration of their religion to the horror of automatic, mass human sacrifice to
"feed" a dying sun. Their fear of "losing" the sun is related to our own equally "primi-
tive" fear of loss of self; the deisidaemonia of modern psychology. In this "cross-
referencing" between cultures we are being assisted towards an understanding of the
ground of our present angst. And just as the gods and motifs of the Aztec calendrical
cosmos the companions of the day and night" reflect and are part of a complex
spiritual progress, a cyclical movement towards self-integration (as in the Mayan
Chilam Balam) in which one was assisted at various stages by the gods and spirits;
so this tabula rasa novel hints at a re-construction of the modern, divided psyche, a
bridging of the gap between historical, factual time and the visionary or dream-time
through which (as in the Black Holes of gravity in the universe) whole unsuspected
new worlds may lie
Thus, Goodrich's editing of the "Idiot Nameless" (archetypal Fool) collection
takes on the hallucinatory quality of a dream as the mass of material:
spread, as I opened packages after package of writings, across
my study like a carpet of autumn leaves and bare winter branches
pointing to the pyramid of the sun." (p. 14)
Reference to the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacin brings to mind the early cultures
of the Pre-Columbian nahuatl-speaking peoples (Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Toltec) of
whom only fragmentary historical records remain. No one knows how or why these
cultures developed or vanished as they did. They represent a "historyless" ab-original
presence which therefore may speak to the modern imagination in contradictory,
often arbitrary ways.6
Idiot Nameless's visit to Mexico is an imaginative re-creation of landscape in
depth as it affects and is reflected by his own developing, heterogeneous sensibility.
There is an interpenetration of self and situation, object and viewer, past and present,
and the result is a brilliantly creative bridging of apparently opposed and static
cultural, historical and emotional climates. An example of this is the Idiot's first
experience; a sudden meeting at night with a fire-eater, (a pavement artist, entertainer
and vendor) near the Avenida Reforma:
I found myself now standing a breath or two away from the head of
the fire-eater. He wore a wide-brimmed hat, ghostly features and a
hollow page of a face. He drew the sun out of his wide-brimmed hat
as if it were a letter of fire. The page of his face stepped back into
itself as it wolfed fire, re-wrote itself, revised itself as it disgorged fire.
Each written page was a new self-portrait he drew that I assembled in
my own heart as companions of the day and night. (p. 20)
The fire-eater is an evocation of both the fire-god Huehueteotl ("a companion of the
night" one of the chief deities in the Aztec pantheon: the fire-eater is a central symbol
in the book) and the Aztec obsession with a "dying" sun, swallowed daily by the lake
and requiring sacrifices in order to rise again. The Idiot feels as if he is falling down-
wards through space and time, back into history, and has a vision of:
Montezuma sailing on a canal sunken now under Avenida Re-
forma before the canals of Tenochtitlin were sealed by the streets,
the pavements of the city, the very pavement on which we now
stood. (p. 21)
Yet the whole, dreamlike incident is perfectly credible, since Nameless suffers from
epilepsy ('falling sickness") and is having one of his fits which are always followed by
"a blending of features half-reflected deed or object in which I became involved,
half glimpsed unsuspected dimension (p. 26). The work of the fire-eater chalked
on the pavement an ornate circle becomes the calendar-stone, the central motif of
which is the face of Tonatiuh, the sun god:
I had stepped, according to the jumbled faces I now read, into a
nine day cycle painted on the ground. I had been baptized into
circular Fool, Clown by a maker of suns. (p. 20)
The theme of gravity is present in this idea of a fall through time, space and history,
and also includes the Fall of Man, fall of the sun into the lake (fall of Lucifer into the
burning lake) the gradual sinking of Mexico city into the lake bed, the Fool's falling
sickness and his ultimate death in falling from the Pyramid of the Sun. From this
first remarkable chapter, sub-titled A Door into the Forge of Creation, the
Idiot moves, aided in his spiritual progress by the companions of day and night,
through the stages of the nine-day cycle into which he has "fallen" The book ends on
the "Dateless Days" during which Nameless visits Mrs. Black Marsden in New York
and his fall from the pyramid is pre-figured, or re-enacted, since the time-sequence,
like character, is not fixed or solid, but fluid and shifting.
It is virtually impossible, in a short article, to give more than a glimpse of the
extraordinary richness and density of this novel. The presentation of landscape is
near miraculous in its blending of both a realistic, outer reflection and a visionary,
Once again he was sailing through a dust-ridden landscape plotted
with occasional fields, mounds, painted with deep shadow. The land
was rising into higher altitudes. The thin mist was lifting now and there
swirled far away that high wind unsettling the globe. Bones. Earth.
Epitaph the Idiot wore in his head. Snow-epitaph far above upon the
tops of volcanoes, perhaps long extinct, the Sleeping Lady and
Popocatapetl. He drew up now upon a bridge and looked across a
ravine From there the conquistadores possessed their first view
of Tenochtitlan shining in its lake. Twentieth-Century Fool bore
all this in the hand with which he stabbed the place now like a back-
ward door into time. Winced to an invisible wire in his blood
The Idiot is on his way to find the home of the beautiful Mexican girl who had
consented, the previous night, to join him in his room in the Gravity hotel. She was
the model for the statuette of the Virgin which the fire-eater had tried to sell him, and
she stands for both a sordid, commercialized reality ("She's worth her weight in
gold" the fire-eater says) and a vague, but urgent inner need. When the Idiot makes
love to her it is an attempt to hold on to something solid; to satisfy his need for a
companion in practical terms, as well as for a sense of spiritual wholeness. In the
hotel bedroom he switches on the light:
She was still there, solid as gold. High cheekbones, dark skin, dark
hair, pencilled in space that broke her solidity and gave him
hope. Hope of subsistence, hope for a future. Penetration of
goddess. Penetration of paradise. (p. 26, my emphasis.)
But in the morning this "companion of the night" has vanished. She has assisted him,
however to face the "aloneness" his task involves, for from now on, he realizes,
S. fall into privacy and security through interchangeable doors
of absence and presence, rejection and acceptance. It was a new
beginning .. the beginning of the radiant city. (p. 26)
The blood-stained statue of Christ he sees on the way to Cholula suggests the
link between politics and religion (outer and inner revolution), for the statue appears
as if riddled with bullet-holes by a firing-squad. The woman he is seeking lives near
the convent of San Francisco, now a church, since the revolution has banned nun-
neries and monasteries. Some convents, however, had resisted the ban and gone
"underground" (an ironic parallel with the "eclipsed", buried pre-conquest Toltec
shrines and temples, once again being "resurrected" by archaeologists.) As the novel
progresses the artist's model, a prostitute, soon becomes indistinguishable from the
heroic young nun, long dead, Sister Beatrice who, during the religious persecutions,
had refused to run away or to abandon the convent. A religious revolutionary, she
had been exposed and raped. Hose', who worships the nun's memory, is the Idiot's
guide and companion at this point, and he illuminates the Idiot's unknowing role as
scapegoat when he mentions a scurrilous rumour:
That after that, after she was raped, it was she who seduced a Fool
each year to play the part (went into the city and brought him back)
We honour her today as the patroness of Christ and the firing
squad (pp. 4142)
What is more the rape had produced a child, a progenitor, in turn, of the artist's
model The nun is grandmother of the whore. The Idiot is astonished to find how
muchhe needs to revise his "research into Post-Christian ages and cultures" in the
light of such new, hitherto "buried" elements. He is assailed by:
self-contradictory tongues that speak with the voices of
saints, devils and angels all rolled into one." (p. 47)
and is more than ever aware of the need for a "capacity to entertain all guides, to be
tolerant of all roles (p. 42)
This is also the message of Sister Joanna, one of the nuns of a "hidden" con-
vent run by Father Marsden" (Goodrich's spiritual mentor, Black Marsden
who appears in many, as it were, allotropic forms). She appears to the Idiot in a
dream, warns him of the need to keep an open-ended view of historical facts, and
repudiates the European attitude towards reality as a sacrosanct institution:
In Europe, a metaphysic has been ironed out, fought over for
centuries, and finally established lucid and firm for all to obey. This
is not the case in Mexico (or in the lands south of Mexico) where a
cleavage exists and within that cleavage.action is largely meaningless
until one strips away from it a body of encrusted habit that trades on
the exploitation of culture by culture. (pp. 49-50)
The special dangers of a fixed, static version of "reality" where there has been
(as in the Caribbean) such a complex cleavage within different cultures and civili-
zations in an attempt to fashion a heterogenous society, are worth pointing out.
Indeed they need to be stressed. Such a wide, compassionate view of history, how-
ever, a decision to seek glimpses of "unsuspected proportions", hidden correspon-
dences in apparently immutable states of reality, is the necessary prelude to being
truly modern, to "coming abreast of one's own time." And it brings, inevitably, a
condition of "aloneness", for (as the Idiot sees it) to be genuinely within one's own
time is in fact, to be "about fifty years ahead of one's time, since the norm is a
passive acceptance of stasis dressed in various guises of "modernity":
as if the past reflected in the present had no bearing on the
present except to adorn the present with facts, figures, appearances..
like a solid unbroken mirror through which one glimpses nothing but
reflects everything. (p. 39)
Hos6, the Indian guide, in his reverence for the memory of Sister Beatrice,
repudiates her offspring, the prostitute. He is unable (or unwilling) to accept both
the saint and the sinner to whom she is linked, but separates them as fixed, static
opposites in very much the manner of society's categories of "sacred" and "secular"
or "legitimate" and "illegitimate" The novel's tolerant, ironic humour lies in this
recognition of the implicit, shared life between stoutly defended polarisations:
between conqueror and conquered, Christian and pagan, or as the Idiot puts it:
between the preservation of an art (money and glory) and the life blood of an art
(scorn of money and glory)." (p. 42)
The Idiot determines to visit the last remaining Sisters of the "vanished" con-
vent run by Father Marsden, Sister Maria and Rose, who fled the country and now
lives in New York. This visit is brilliantly juxtaposed with the Idiot's climb to the
summit of the Pyramid of the Sun and his subsequent fall to his death. The writing
conveys the realistic and supernatural elements of the Idiot's experience on the
pyramid with great economy. He is cast in the role of Tlaloc, the powerful Aztec god
of rain and fruitfulness, but he is also a sacrificial victim:
He was alone up there, beached, abandoned, in the middle of his
great fall, great square. Carved, illustrious rain. Disengaged heart,
hollow cloak The traffic edged its way around him, past him
sparked chasm he glimpsed as it glimpsed him in a mutual pool
upon which the rain dashed its rivets of stars. (pp. 58-59)
During this experience of "limitless expansion", his visit to New York takes place,
where he meets "Mrs. Black Marsden" ("there is a forest of Marsden faces," she
explains) who tells him the story of Maria's death and of Rose's refusal to accept the
fact. Another stasis. Rose has projected her love for Maria into a monolithic need and
institution, and Mrs. Marsden (an actress) is attempting to play the role of Rose in
order to create a "dialogue" which will release Rose from the prison of the past with-
out damaging the love between the sisters. The Idiot's visit to Mrs. Black Marsden
ends with an evocation of his death woven, as it were, into the scene in Mrs. Marsden's
apartment, like the design of the pyramid, painted on the curtains of the room:
the curtains billowed suddenly around him like the clouds in a
draught as he fell from the pyramid of the sun. He shook his
eyes out of a cloud. Too close to the window. Too close to the curtains
with their base of a billowing pyramid in his head. (p. 77, author's
The novel ends with a postscript: "Marsden's letter to Goodrich", a report of
what "actually" happened in the room, and a discussion of the extraordinary im-
pression the Idiot had made on Mrs. Marsden. To her, he had seemed a Christ-like
figure "as if he gave himself to others and others subsisted upon him (as he subsisted
upon them). (p. 82) At the last moment, however, when Idiot Nameless had asked
her to let him stay "for a day and a night", she had reacted conventionally, with sus-
picion and distrust ("My husband would not like it.") And here the final, ironic note
is struck, for she has rejected one of the "companions of the day and night"
Helen Lynd, discussing the "search for Significant Wholes" which engages the
attention of both science and art, says:
Writers of the last half-century have engaged in the hazards
involved in the development of symbols, abundant with meaning, which
inform the subject with a wealth of treasured experience symbols
that carry in themselves the antithetical sense of primal words the
richness and versatility that enlarge the possibilities of language and
of experience itself. (On Shame and the Search for Identity,
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958, p. 245)
Wilson Harris's work, his syncretic approach to language and to the symbolic meaning
of experience, not only enlarges the possibilities of both, but also the possibility of
mutual respect and understanding within and between apparently opposed stereotypes
of history and culture In this he is very much ahead of his time.
1. One is reminded of the theme of Doris Lessing's most remarkable novel to
date Briefing for a Descent into Hell (Jonathan Cape 1971) which she
describes as "Inner-space fiction." In the novel, Professor Charles Watkins,
suffering from amnesia in a mental home, recounts his discovery of the inner
"space" of his own psyche. This need for a reclamation of the interior life is
also the main theme of Colin Wilson's fascinating, though uneven, discussion of
the link between occultism and the cultivation of an "inner" faculty: "faculty
X" (The Occult Hodder & Stoughton, 1971)
2. Even Under the Volcano (1947), the great, central novel of the intended
continuum, Lowry regarded as incomplete.
3. c.f. D.H. Lawrence's reactions, during his and Freida's stay in Oaxaca:
The Aztec gods and goddesses are, as far as we have known anything about
them, an unlovely and unlovable lot. In their myths there is no grace or charm,
no poetry. Only this perpetual grudge, grudge, grudging Look at these
Mexican Indian children their stiff little bodies as taut and as keen as
knives of obsidian. Take care they don't rip you up. ("The Mozo" from
Mornings in Mexico, Heinemann, 1956 pp. 23-24)
For Lawrence there could be "no bridge, no canal of connection" between the
Indian and the white consciousness.
4. Analogous to the Allancanqui or "you are missing" days of the gold
Echinque Plaque, an ancient Inca calendar.
5. Unidentified Flying Objects. C.G. Jung regarded this phenomen as evidence
of a universal wish for psychic unity; for a synthesis of opposites within the
psyche (See Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Collins Routledge and Kegan
6. Irene Nicholson, for example, referring to the stereotyped view of Pre-
Columbian religions as "savage" or "cruel", claims that the myths of Mexico
and Central America possessed "a lofty philosophy and a complete cosmology,
both of which are entirely at variance with the mistaken idea that the basic
religion of Middle America was founded on human sacrifice and the tearing out
of hearts. (Mexican and Central American Mythology Hamlyn, 1967 pp.
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