Read The Carnival Trilogy Online

Authors: Wilson Harris

The Carnival Trilogy

The Carnival Trilogy

WILSON HARRIS

[This introduction is an extract from an address I gave to the Temenos Academy in London on 18 March 1991. The full text was published in the following year in the journal
Temenos
13.]

As an imaginative writer I find myself
reading
in
continuously
changing ways. I reread works by writers I may have misjudged and which I return to and perceive differently. I reread my own fictions after a long while and see
connections
there I planted and yet which seem utterly new. Let me attempt to illumine what I mean as concretely as I may. Let me commence with
Carnival
,
the first novel in this trilogy.

A word about the characters in
Carnival.
Jonathan Weyl is – let us say – a twentieth-century Dante figure. He is secreted in the carnival of the twentieth century. The
particularities
of his existence make him intimate with some of the proportions of a thirteenth-century Dante even as they move him light years away, so that the origination of a Dantesque formula, a Dantesque investiture, a Dantesque mask, is called into question. There are stars in Dante’s thirteenth-century cosmos he would never have perceived as we perceive them. They were fixed. Whereas for us the light that comes across space from a star is but the shadow of an object that may have vanished. News of its
disappearance
has not yet been transmitted to us. To put it differently: within the abyss of tradition – within the spatiality, the spectrality of tradition – the original nucleus that motivates us is so peculiar, so unidentifiable, that singularity needs plurality. Dante, in other words, needs a twentieth-century carnival of masks even as those masks look backwards to him and through him into the mysterious
origins of Imagination in science and art.

There is also Amaryllis, who is a Beatrice figure. She has acquired particularities of numinous sexuality in the twentieth-century carnival. I shall touch upon these in due course for they help in the transformation of the barrier between the Virgilian pagan and the
paradiso.

There is Everyman Masters, the twentieth-century
Virgilian
guide. As ‘Everyman’ he cannot escape his pagan body. Indeed he visualizes Christ as riding into Jerusalem on a pagan donkey, a donkey that is another kind of Trojan horse. In it lies an invisible text, an invisible army, that will overturn Jerusalem itself as well as the Roman age.

All these complications imply various fractures and subtle abysses in story lines we take for granted. The reader has to read differently, to read backwards and
forwards
, even more importantly forwards and backwards. All the imageries are partial, though attuned to a
wholeness
one can never seize or structure absolutely.
Wholeness
becomes a thread or a continuity running from the
inferno
into the
paradiso.
I said earlier that ‘wholeness’ cannot be seized or structured. Wholeness is a rich and
insoluble
paradox. Wholeness has to do with an origination of the Imagination whose solidity is interwoven with a paradoxical tapestry of spectrality, of the light year. Thus it is that Everyman Masters is both dead and alive when he dies and returns into Jonathan Weyl’s dreams, into
Amaryllis’s
dreams, as their Virgilian guide. The rich but insoluble paradox that clothes him brings an impulse into the text of
Carnival
to transform an authoritarian
paradiso.

The ecstasies and torments that run parallel through the twentieth-century age made it inevitable that the dead king should descend into the living Inferno the moment Amaryllis and I glimpsed heaven and consummated our secret marriage vows. The Inferno
lives
when the dead retrace their steps around the globe. Our marriage was unique heart and mind but for that reason – unique
tranquillity and ecstasy, unique revolution and peace – it was inevitable that a master spirit would return to
counsel
us and to bear the penalty of the Inferno that runs in parallel with heaven. Masters accepted the penalty. He became my guide and opposite (our guide and opposite) in arriving from the kingdom of the dead to counsel us in the land of the living and to guide my pen across the pages of this biography of spirit.

The use of the word ‘inevitable’ in the passage above is intended to pre-empt fate and in so doing to steep us in a continuity that is other than fate, the continuity of insoluble wholeness. As a consequence the dead/living king (that Everyman Masters is) bears the penalty of the Inferno in order to make of every erasure of pagan labour’s claim to the
paradiso
a fracture or subtle abyss in the
story-line
of the
paradiso.
That fracture, that subtlety of
penetration
, is lifted into the bliss of the
conjunctio
between Amaryllis and Jonathan Weyl as a portent of a healed humanity across all terrifying barriers.

What is divine comedy? In the light of the abyss of space and time of which a thirteenth-century poet was unaware, may not divine comedy transform itself into light-year comedy, may not a numinous equation exist between spectrality and blissful sexuality as the seed of the
Incarnation
?

Light-year comedy within the context of numinous
sexuality
brings the rhythms of obsolescence into youth and vice versa. In such rhythms landscapes/riverscapes/skyscapes are miniaturized into bodily/bodiless
continuities
we do not immediately recognize as pertinent to the sacrament of sex:

Our naked flesh was inhabited by mutual generations clad in nothing but obsolescent organs, obsolescent youth. What obsolescence! What intimate renewal of being beyond age and youth! We were intimate, ageless being, we were four years short of thirty, we were
young, we were old as the coition of the hills and waves miniaturized in our bodies. We were a dying fall into deeper orchestration of mutual spaces.

When I wrote that passage – and though it came out of intense care and concentration – I did not realize (it might well have been written by a stranger) the continuity it sustained with future work, the corridor that ran through it into the characters that would appear in the second novel of this trilogy, namely
The
Infinite
Rehearsal.
Many imaginative writers know of the legacies one work offers another that is still to be written. What I am referring to, however, is deeper than this. It is as if those legacies are overturned by the hand of a stranger to imply a continuity the legacies themselves may have eclipsed. It would never have crossed my mind – when I wrote
The
Infinite
Rehearsal
– to associate Jonathan Weyl, Amaryllis and Everyman Masters in
Car
nival
with Robin Redbreast Glass, Emma and Peter in
The
 
Infinite
Rehearsal.
Even now I advance the association with some trepidation. Yet it is blindingly clear that it exists. Robin Redbreast Glass is immortal Faustian youth. He sustains a link with Jonathan Weyl (the twentieth-century Dante figure in
Carnival
)
because of the mediumistic bliss that erupts into his relationship with Emma. Emma – the female priest in
The
Infinite
Rehearsal

an ageing woman (presumably therefore obsolescent in sexual terms)
validates
Amaryllis, the Beatrice figure, in
Carnival.
Numinous intercourse occurs between her – the ostensibly aged woman – and the immortal Faustian youth Robin Redbreast Glass. Peter – as Robin’s
alter
ego
– is a mediumistic
Everyman
Masters and a shadowy Virgilian guide in
The
Infinite
Rehearsal.

Robin Redbreast Glass arises from the grave of the sea to become immortal Faustian youth. There had been a boating accident in which Robin, his mother, his aunt, and others were drowned. Peter and Emma were in the capsized boat but they escaped and lay on the beach exhausted. Peter lay
with his head under Emma’s hair and upon her breasts. When Emma and Peter are old they meet the resurrected Faustian youth (who therefore has not aged) in the tunnel of the light years. Robin sees himself within
alter
ego
Peter as if the years fall away and
he
(Robin instead of Peter) lies with Emma on the beach. He lies with his head beneath her hair and upon her breasts. And yet he recognizes her as an aged woman simultaneously. He sees her as a female priest. It is this saving paradox within age and youth, within the translation of obsolescence and fertility, that gives to the spectrality of encounter a wholly different apprehension of the living in the dead, the dead in the living, absence in presence, presence in absence. I am not sure that the terms ‘dead’ and ‘living’ apply in this context for one is dealing with a continuity of encounter that nourishes itself by overturning legacies of expectation. That is how it seems to me. I have no dogma or absolute theories about the unfinished genesis of the Imagination.

Robin is amazed to discover that Emma is a priest.
So
was
I,
the
writer.
Prior to writing this novel I believed women should not be priests. I changed my mind in the light of the subtle abysses that appeared in
The
Carnival
Trilogy.
Robin records his astonishment in a series of passages (the allusion to ‘Skull’ is to a city of prosperity littered with desolations). Robin exclaims inwardly:

I saw in a flash that she was a priest, a female priest, she was hope in the city of Skull, revolutionary hope, unconventional hope.

Let me confess that the issue of the female priest is one that startles me. It overturns a certain legacy of expectation that I have entertained from childhood.
The
priest
is
male
is
male
is
priest
is
male
for
ever
and
ever.
Aboriginal or ontic
tautology
enshrined in so many storylines. But a question arises: are the stigmata upon the body of Christ a storyline? Do they not imply an abyss at the heart of history? Is the crucifixion of the Son of God – no less a person, mark you!
– the very Son of God – is this not an abyss at the heart of human history? If so, then the stigmata may imply a range of association we do not recognize and have scarcely begun to gauge. That is how I felt when I came to Emma, the young/old, obsolescent/fertile priest. Through her my grasp of Faust underwent a profound change. Let me come first to the stigmata. Robin addresses Emma inwardly again:

All this made me scan Emma’s features closely. She was veiled by dateless day infinity comedy. I saw her innate sorrow. I suddenly saw how worn she was. It was as if a nail had woven its innermost weblike constancy into her flesh, an ecstatic nail, a sorrowing nail. Ecstatic and sorrowing!

When Robin alludes there to ‘dateless day infinity comedy’ as a veil upon Emma’s features he draws upon an ancient pre-Columbian, calendrical perspective. This matches, I think, the notion of light-year vistas. But I wish at this juncture to remind you of the ‘nail’, its ‘innermost weblike constancy … ecstatic nail, sorrowing nail …’

It is as if one glimpses numinous sexuality within Robin’s blissful relationship to Emma on the beach beside the sea, a numinous sexuality that becomes a spectral nail that pierces through the
inferno
into the
paradiso.

In such a nail that shatters one’s pre-possessions I knew the construction of a sound that echoed in the air and in the sea. It was the music of the priest, of the God of nature. ‘One comes,’ said Emma, ‘to a beloved creation, to the divine, in every moment that one survives in the inimitable textures of nature, truly lives and survives.

All this I feel brings a wholly unexpected variation into the stigmata we tend to identify tautologously with the body of Christ. Through Emma the female priest – Emma the body of the womb – a multiple counterpoint – weblike yet
constant
– is woven that involves Faustian, immortal youth, the
resurrection body, ecstatic numinous, paradisean nail, and sorrowing nail that pierces the tyranny of the inferno.

As I lay on the beach I was pierced by the cry of the gulls, the laughing sea gulls. Were they gulls or were they cranes? I could not tell. It was a cry from heaven and yet it was a subtle, piercing, shaking laughter. A shaking note like strings of music in the sea. The motif of an incomparable composition …

It may interest you to note that the cry of the gull echoes a pre-Columbian motif which relates to Quetzalcoatl.
Quetzal
the bird. Coatl the snake, the abysmal yet fertile earth which is ‘beloved nature’.

Now, may I return to Faust and the way in which the multiple counterpoint affected my vision of Faust. There is an aspect to Faust, immortal youth, when he seems to achieve a divorce from the resurrection body in
The
Infinite
Rehearsal
and looms as absolutely dominant. He buries the ecstatic, sorrowing nail within a hubris of immortality. He seeks implicitly to abort the mysterious buoyancy that is open to him as he lies beside Emma. Weblike constancy becomes a sterile rigidity. And then he gains a position by which to manipulate a series of ageing masks. One such mask bears the initials W.H. (my own initials). A joke, a serious joke. Except that Faust sees the ageing masks he wears as expendable. And in that sense the joke may hurt. Despite one’s labours for Faust – despite the labour of one’s antecedents across generations – one and they are expendable and doomed.

The rigidity of the perpetually young immortal Faust secures the
tautology
of
tyranny
,
the worship of fascism, of evil. Faust’s ageing masks include the ageing institutions of democracy, of the Church, of the humanities, the
universities
. We have seen how such ageing institutions may be worn to the detriment of peoples in Hitlerite Europe, in Field-Marshal Amin’s Africa, and most recently in
Saddam’s
Iraq.

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