The Caribbean Syzygy: a study of the novels of Edgar Mittelholzer and Wilson Harris


The problem of racial inheritance - the "search for identity" - is a recurring theme in the criticism of Caribbean literature. It is a pre-occupation with Caribbean writers, affecting both subject matter and literary quality, as FM. Birbalsingh, for example, has shown with reference to the novels of John Hearne and E,R. Braithwaite (Caribbean quarterly Vols. 14, December 1968 and 16, March 1970). This study of the work of Edgar Mittelholzer and Wilson Harris will attempt to show that there are important areas still to be explored relating Caribbean literature to its complex racial and cultural background. Both Mittelholzer and Harris deserve close, critical study in their own right; but a parallel examination reveals similarities and differences which bring into sharper focus wider concerns of Caribbean literature. The two important directions of West Indian writing are more clearly seen: the one, pioneered by Mittelholzer, in which the writer looks outward towards a "parent" culture, and the other looking inward, seeking in its own, complex inheritance the raw material for new and original growth. Mittelholzer and Harris are both Guyanese of mixed racial stock, both deeply concerned with the psychological effects of this mixture, and both writers have a profound awareness of the Guyanese historical and cultural heritage. They also share a deep feeling for the Guyenese landscape which appears in their work as a brooding presence affecting radically -the lives of those who live within i-t. Mittelholzer's attitude to his mixed racial and cultural origins, however, produces in his work a schizophrenic Imbalance while Harris, by accepting racial and cultural complexity as a starting-point, initiates a uniquely creative and experimental art. Mittelholzer, in his approach to history, human character eM landscape, remains a vi "coastal" writer never really concerned (as Harris is) with. the deeper significance of the "Interior" and all that this implies, both in a geographical and psychological sense. The fact that Mittelbolzer's work reflects a psychological imbalance induced by a pre-occupation with racial identity has been demonstrated by Denis Williams in the 1968 Mittelholzer Lectures, and by Joyce Sparer in a series of articles in the Guyana Graphic. Mittelholzer's awareness of this imbalance, however, and his attempt to come to terms with it in his art remain to be examined and documented, as does Harris's attempt to create am "associative" art aimed at healing the breach in the individual consciousness of Caribbean Man. The aim of this study is to demonstrate that Mitteholzer and. Harris, although antithetical in impact and style (each representing an approach to fiction directly opposed to the other) are, in fact, the opposite elements of a dichotomy. Their work illustrates the negative and positive aspects of the racial and cultural schizophrenia of the Caribbean, for both writers in their different ways are preoccupied with (and therefore have embodied in their work) the juxtaposition and, contrasting of apparently irreconcilable emotional and intellectual qualities - the Caribbean Syzygy

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