Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Pleasures and Misfirings of Myth

Characters in Mittelholzer’s Shadows Move Among Them (1951) would have given considerable thought to any suggestion that ghosts, jumbies or shadows as experienced in a forest environment were little more than “electrical misfirings” of the brain. This viewpoint was put forward by scientists in a recent issue of the journal Nature. They claim that human agents by sending electrical messages to the brain could induce anyone to think “duppies” are real entities.

In Shadows Mittelholzer’s folk had their own theory about ghosts & spirits. When asked to explain bizarre behavior in the jungle, one character described it as “myth pleasure”. This, he says, is when people exercise their creative imagination and amuse themselves in accordance with a code of make believe. “We here create our myths and conventions day by day and discard them as easily as we create them”. Seen in such playful, rational terms and robbed of its ancient mystery and fears, life without spirit visitations could be managed with greater confidence even if futures remain indeterminable.

Myths and inner worldly behavior have been central to the fiction of Wilson Harris. An entire scholarship industry has built up around his books. The sequence of novels that comprise The Guyana Quartet was published between 1960 and1964. Harris has argued firmly & obscurely against “realism”, its “inadequacy” as a tool for exploring the complexity of Caribbean history and peoples. His aesthetic manifesto (in Tradition, the Writer and Society, 1967) hovered like a giant theory-filled airship over everyone in the region who taught literature, or considered writing fiction in the 70s.

The thorny metaphysics of his fiction, needing explication and explicators, might have eclipsed any burgeoning interest in Mittelholzer’s writings beyond those blandly informative historical overviews and the circumstances surrounding the author’s exile and demise in England.

Shadows was recognized in Time Magazine as one of the significant works of fiction published in 1951, a “hard to classify novel.” It could be read today as a comic parallel to those hyper-articulate folk taking off on metaphor-laden boat rides up the Canje river in The Guyana Quartet. The novel’s humour and inventiveness, the “mad slant” Mittelholzer brings to the Guyana landscape would appeal to many in the Caribbean not disposed to “brood”. Guyanese readers might find it particularly enjoyable on the level of comic fantasy.

Europeans as anthropologists, Governors, entrepreneurs have been drawn to Guyana with its explorable Interiors and underrepresented tribes. From Schomburgh to the Roths these very serious men have left us museums and maps and musty volumes of fadingly important information. In Shadows Mittelholzer uses three Europeans as central characters and it is tempting to view the novel as a satirical commentary on those explorers who came before.

Reverend Harmston, the central character, is unlike those early serious men. Educated at Oxford he brings his family to British Guiana in 1937 and takes them 100 miles up the Berbice River. There he adds to his vocation the responsibilities of coroner, registrar and protector of Amerindian rights. Once settled he starts thinking, maybe he could build his own cross-cultural civilization amidst the splendour of rivers & forest, “the gruff roar of baboons” and the Amerindians astonishingly in harmony with nature.

It’s an imperialist settler’s dream, after the search for Eldorado, and since he is miles away from official Georgetown scrutiny Harmston wastes no time establishing (what years later in 1960s North American argot would come to be known as) “a hippie commune”.

The location is an exotic sounding place called Berkelhoost, an old plantation once owned by an old Dutch family with an exotic name, the Schoonlusts. In 1763 there was that famous slave revolt. As the legend unfolds in this novel, the white family members were slaughtered, but strangely their 17 year old daughter, Mevrouw Adriana Schoonlust, did not object when threatened with sexual assault. Her life was spared and she became a servant of the slave leader, Cuffy, attending to his sexual needs (and doing secretarial chores since Cuffy couldn’t read or write.)

Mittelholzer sets his novel in a place memoried in blood, lust and ghosts in the plantation ruins, a place where the Devil “lurks in the shadow of every twig.” But the newly-arrived Harmston family is unfazed by its blood-soaked history. As if to neutralize the horror of what took place, Reverend Harmston encourages more ‘natural’ human relations, a kinder sexuality. Pleasure without foreboding, you could say.

No wine or alcoholic beverages are allowed at Berkelhoost (they’re against the health code.) But the ethos of “hard work, frank love and wholesome play” becomes the tricolor flag of the Harmston civilization. At the end of one of his Sunday sermons, for instance, Reverend Harmston switches roles and reads this community bulletin: “Our monthly consignment of goods is due by this Wednesday’s steamer…a fresh shipment of contraceptives and contraceptive appliances is expected by this same opportunity, and any of you who might find yourself running short can call whenever you like to replenish your supplies.”

The second European in the novel is Hendrick Buckmaster, resident scholar & historian, “a regular fun-stick” around the reservation. He has a cheerful explanation for his jungle disinhibitions: “I’ve got an oversexed Doppleganger, my boy. It does nothing but father illegitimate children…I’m king of sleep-walkers in this neighborhood – my Doppelganger, I mean. And as for sleep-acting – well you ask some of these Buck women and hear what they tell you.”

The Harmston model is a basically simple one: shared responsibilities, plus a blending of European enlightenment and the “local influences”. Structures, codes and “secret laws” would impose discipline on unruly inclinations and native behaviors. Conditions are spartan but life though regimented is far from beholden to the Ten Commandments. Harmston calls his an “elastic” religion, a pragmatic mix of “Thou shalt nots” and the leavened humanity of “spirit and fevered flesh”.

His forest-dwellers are not entirely free to run around half-naked in pursuit of pleasures and self-interests. Harmston sets up his education system. Lots of aesthetic stimulation, immersion in the Best of European Culture: Chopin, “Aida”, Shakespeare, “The Ride of the Valkyries” (whose chorus & trumpet overtures blasting through the forest would have lifted the heads of local birds and animals) and the US Time Magazine. Depending on aptitudes the children are separated into “squads”: the Book squad, Drama squad, Labour Squad.

Order at the forest settlement is maintained with balata whips. (Who said building a civilization would be painless?) Harmston’s daughters are slapped hard on the face if disobedient. Malefactors are generously granted three chances to mend their ways. A fourth offence would lead to their “elimination” as incurably bad folk. An Amerindian wrongdoer with a special fear of jumbies is manacled in a shed believed to be haunted by the ghosts of the slaughtered Dutch family. Throughout all this the Harmston authority is never challenged.

The European through whose interrogatory eyes we wander around the settlement is a tormented young man named Gregory. He arrives with a raft of personal “issues” that spring from crumpled nerves and marriage memories he can’t erase (Harmston considers him a refugee from an “over-civilized Europe”). Actually a psychiatrist had suggested a change of environment (the strangeness of Guyana) as a cure for his ills.

Slowly he is tugged into the oddness of the Harmston experiment and he begins to display odd, trancelike behaviours of his own. In time he becomes the love interest of the Harmston girls, a precocious 14 year old who sends him notes (“My Flat Chest Burns For You”) written in her blood; and 19 year old, sexed-up Mabel Harmston who wants to give up her free loving way with Amerindian boys and settle down. The big question for Gregory is his readiness to give up England (its night clubs, restaurants and banking system) and commit weeks, years of his life to a forestrial haven of corials, hairy spiders and those erotically charged Harmston girls.

Events in the novel are not outlandishly funny. Mittelholzer manages to keep a thread of 1930s colonial credibility running through the pages. At the same time the tone of controlled amusement permits the reader a varied response, now shaking with laughter, at other times lulled by the creepy visual and sound effects of the Guyana forest.

Lightning and thunder, torrential rains and the full moon intervene at hallucinatory moments of self-discovery, and though the benabs aren’t built with creaking doors things manage to go bump on the forest floor amidst all the insect and bird noise. His Europeans might come across as cartoony inventions, but the straight-faced depiction of the Berbice wilds is a measure of the author’s intimate knowledge of Guyana, from city to forest & savannah.

Outsiders must trust Mittelholzer when he writes: “The fire-flies flickered without sound in the darkness – several at a time, sporadic and unstable…The air was laden with the leafy scent of dew on decayed vegetation, and came to him in slow drifts as if borne on the waves of insect-shrilling….” (p. 46)

You might wonder, where are the Guyanese men and women in Shadows? Aside from the Amerindians who represent “the local influences” they are miles away in Georgetown. Keep in mind, this is the 1930s. The brightest local minds are probably preparing to set out for Oxford U., LSE and other hatcheries of radical thinking. Years later they would return and, like Reverend Harmston, begin their own cross-cultural experiments, be it “socialism” or “cooperative republicanism”; or the ethnic mesmerism that seeps through our segmented land.

Maybe Shadows, published in 1951, with its European settler themes and characters, was Mittelholzer’s cautionary tale for our unsettled nation. In the jungle, he might be saying, be wary of white elephants and European dream-builders, their seed bags bulging with capital and ‘big ideas’. They come to Guyana in many postures and disguises. Some may not even speak in European tongues. A few could well be shape-shifting Guyanese.

Grant them a wish, concessions, tracts of green, virgin land anywhere, you never know what they’ll do next; the grand schemes they’ll devise, the human cost and waste if these grand schemes misfire.

Book Reviewed: “Shadows Move Among Them”: Edgar Mittelholzer: J.B. Lippincott Company, New York, 1951, 334 pages.

Easy Web Video Software

No comments: