The Sacred and the Profane in Wilson Harris’ Jonestown

Paper given at “Crisis Carnival Conference”
San Diego State University, 20 March 2008

Three decades have elapsed since the mass deaths of nine hundred people occurred in an American utopian settlement located in the jungles of Guyana. Dozens of scholarly analyses have failed to unseat the popular narrative that Jonestown was all about crazy cultists who drank the Kool-Aid under the coercion of a madman.[i] Wilson Harris’ consideration of Jonestown in his eponymous novel challenges this master narrative, however. The Guyana-born novelist locates the events at Jonestown within the history of colonial oppression of indigenous peoples in the New World. His re-telling of the story serves the task of recalling the lives and deaths of millions who died under colonialism. To forget is profane their memory, to remember is sacred. Thus Jonestown, the novel, “reverses the effects of the colonialist disavowal,” to use the words of critical theorist Homi Bhabha.[ii]

A brief summary of the life and death of Peoples Temple is required, given the fact that the events of Jonestown occurred in 1978, thirty years ago this year. A charismatic prophet named Jim Jones founded an inter-racial church in Indianapolis in the 1950s, challenging both segregation and capitalism with a social gospel that called for racial equality and just distribution of wealth among group members. Eighty members of Peoples Temple moved to California following Jones’ prediction of nuclear holocaust. The group grew under an aggressive proselytizing program, and expanded to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Concern about the safety of African Americans in the U.S. led the group to establish a community in the Northwest District of Guyana. The workers at the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project cleared hundreds of acres of jungle to create a community, which came to be called Jonestown. Negative publicity about the Temple in San Francisco, however, forced a rapid mass migration to the project before it could handle the influx of newcomers. As a result, housing was crowded, food was scarce, and efforts to control dissent increased.

In November 1978, California Congressman Leo Ryan visited the isolated community to investigate conditions there, accompanied by journalists and relatives of Peoples Temple members. On November 18, 1978, sixteen residents of Jonestown asked to join Ryan and his party as they left. While they waited to board two small aircraft, a few young men who had followed the party from Jonestown began firing upon it, killing Ryan, three newsmen, and one defector. A dozen others were wounded, some quite seriously.

Back in Jonestown, more than 900 residents gathered in the central pavilion, where Jones told them what had happened and exhorted them to drink a cyanide-laced fruit punch. A tape recording of the incident reveals that the few residents who protested were shouted down by the majority.[iii] Eyewitness accounts are conflicting, with some saying that people were coerced into taking poison, and others saying that people willingly drank the mixture. By the end of the day, 918 Americans in Guyana were dead: 909 in Jonestown; five on the airstrip; and four in the Temple’s residence in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana.

To understand Jonestown and Wilson Harris, we need to consider Guyana, home to both. Despite its location in South America, Guyana “is a part of the English-speaking Caribbean, both for historical and cultural reasons,” according to Gordon Lewis.[iv] Initially colonized by the Dutch in the seventeenth century, it came under English control in the early nineteenth century. African slavery began in 1640, and a violent slave rebellion occurred in 1763. Its leader, Cuffy, committed suicide three months into the revolt. After slavery was outlawed in the 1830s, the British imported indentured laborers from India to work the vast sugar plantations. The roots of Guyana’s present racial divide between citizens of African and Indian descent lie in this history.

The country became an unofficial front in the U.S. war against Communism in the Western Hemisphere after the rise of Castro, and the U.S. clandestinely supported an Afro-Guyanese government against explicitly Marxist political parties.[v] The CIA funneled money through American trade unions in the 1960s to foment labor violence and destabilize the Marxist-leaning government of Cheddi Jagan, an Indo-Guyanese. In 1964 the British rigged national elections to ensure Jagan’s defeat, and gave Guyana its independence two years later. In 1968 the CIA provided a voter registration system guaranteed to keep Jagan’s successor, Forbes Burnham, in power. Burnham made himself “president for life” in 1973, and remained in office until his death in 1985.

Wilson Harris, an expatriate Guyanese who lives in the United Kingdom, explores recent history as well as the pre-colonial past in most of his fiction. His novel Jonestown, published in 1996, moves backward and forward between ancestral Caribbean time and Jonestown time.[vi] Harris ties the deaths in Jonestown to the South American culture of Mayan sacrifices, colonialism, and postcolonial oppression. In his introduction to the book he states that all of the characters in the book are “fictional and archetypal” (3). indicating his purpose in placing Jonestown and Jim Jones—called Jonah Jones in the novel—in an enlarged and expansive drama that transcends time and space, and yet is intimately linked to the reality of colonialism in the Guyanas.

The protagonist of Jonestown, Francisco Bone, escapes death at the last moment because a character named Deacon, Jonah Jones’ right-hand man, shoots Jones just before Jones plans to kill Bone. Deacon then dies in a fall. As the sole survivor of Jonestown, Bone feels great responsibility to the past: not just his own, but to the history of victims of previous holocausts in the New World. “Revisiting the past, Bone realizes how misguided Jones’s [sic] desire to create a new Rome in the South American rainforest was,” according to one literary critic. “It is again hindsight that enables Bone to begin to perceive the analogy between himself and all past and future victims of Jones’s [sic] look-alikes.”[vii]

Harris concerns himself with history and memory, especially the gap in the history of pre-colonial peoples that has been erased due to their extermination. He claims that it is essential to create a jigsaw in which “pasts” and “presents” and likely or unlikely “futures” are the pieces that multitudes in the self employ in order to bridge chasms in historical memory (5). “Memory theatre has no fixtures,” he writes in Jonestown.

One exercises a riddle of proportions as one writes of time and times, in time and times, through time and times, as if blended times are the solid and elusive foundations of holocaustic Jonestown… The lives and limbs of those who have perished need to be weighed as incredible matter-of-fact that defies the limits of realistic discourse (82, ellipses in original).

Harris alludes to the memory theater of classical rhetoric described by Frances Yates in The Art of Memory.[viii] Memory theater is a mnemonic device by which an orator remembers a speech by forming mental images in particular places, “so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things.”[ix] Yates notes that during the Renaissance memory theater became “a total world-reflecting system,”[x] and this seems to typify Harris’ approach. Jonestown itself serves as “a total world-reflecting system,” as the book examines a number of important issues: life, death, justice, oppression. It is the hall where we can visit and revisit the past because the past continues to emerge in the present. “Memory theatre takes us back and helps us revise things which we did not understand in the past,” says Harris.[xi]

Postcolonial literature is produced through a strategy of disavowal, according to Homi Bhabha. He says that “the trace of what is disavowed is not repressed but repeated as something different—a mutation, a hybrid.”[xii] The novel Jonestown is just such a mutation and hybrid, in which Harris retells the history of conquest, of Jonestown, and of Guyana on multiple levels and layers so that in the end Jonestown is indistinguishable from the history of colonialism and of Guyana. Harris creates this hybrid in a circular rather than linear way. “You cannot write a history of South America that is final, a history that is located in a single linearity,”[xiii] Harris says. Bhabha also raises the question of linearity in contemporary constructions of “nationness,” arguing that it creates a historicism that “most commonly signifies a people, a nation, or a national culture” that ignores a number of other elements, “like sexuality, class affiliation, territorial paranoia, or ‘cultural difference’.”[xiv] For example, Bhabha characterizes the discovery of “the English book” in India—namely the Bible—and the development of an English literature of empire as a process of “displacement, distortion, dislocation, repetition.”[xv] Harris agrees when he says that, “the art of Empire in the novel-form of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries displayed all-white characters from all-white families and ignored all other peoples, diverse and peculiar, under the imperial umbrella.”[xvi] Jonestown attempts to remedy these problems, but can only do so in a non-linear way because colonialism

brought into play a wholly different epic fiction from conventional European fiction, an epic net which embraced Europe as well—an epic conversant with the European Conquest of the ancient Americas but antecedent to European models (186).

Thus, the narrative of the book folds again and again upon itself in multiple layers. You can never be entirely sure where you are exactly in any of Harris’ novels, and this is certainly true of Jonestown.

Just as Harris rejects the European novel form in Jonestown, he also seems to reject European religion and religious sensibilities. Although the book contains references to Christianity and the Virgin Mary, it emphasizes the pre-Columbian religions of human sacrifice. Towards the end of the book, for instance, Francisco Bone is in a netherworld and encounters his skeleton twin. This reference echoes the significance of twins in Mayan religion. Bone wonders if his twin is a sacred trickster, a figure found in many world religions who tends to upset our plans and assumptions. The trickster may be either malevolent or benign, and that’s what Bone wants to know about his twin. In this netherworld our hero observes players at a gigantic gambling table. “It was a sacred game,” Bone writes in his dream-book, “set in a curiously pagan yet modern context” (154). As Bone studies the players throwing the dice, he seems to feel the dice bounce against his own flesh. “I felt I was in danger of being torn to shreds by Maya peasants and savages.” One player whom Bone identifies as a Prisoner, steps forward and is attacked by a crowd.

It was a battle over the Pagan Body (its susceptibility to the elements), Pagan Sport, Pagan Riot, Pagan Economies in Third Worlds, Second Worlds, First Worlds…The Pagan Body had long seemed irrelevant to Western and Eastern, Northern and Southern ideologies. Yet one caught a glimpse of intrinsic paganism in the embalmed frames of charismatic warriors or revolutionaries or saints (155).

In this passage Harris contrasts indigenous religions—what he identifies as “the pagan body”—with the sacred heroes of western religions. Bone eventually recognizes the ghost-players at the gambling table as belonging to “all parties across the generations of colonial and post-colonial histories,” from presidents and prime ministers to bankers and peasants (156). The game is a metaphor for what Harris calls “an unforgettable counterpoint between ancient savage ritual and mystical dismemberment scarcely understood as the twentieth century drew to a close” (159). As the novelist says, the dice are made from bone with a small “b,” and from Bone with a capital “B,” while the table is made out of the flesh of Francisco Bone. This is the “pagan body” to which Harris refers.

This pagan body has distinctly Christian overtones, however. A grave-digger who adopts the Mask of Carnival Lord Death is pitted against a figure simply called the Prisoner. Carnival Lord Death is in fine clothes, while the Prisoner is in rags. Despite this disparity, the Prisoner’s bones form a shield over Francisco Bone: “as though God’s death were my sacred life,” says Bone.

An uncanny, almost savage, sensation! Intrinsic to Communion. Intrinsic to the eating of Bread and Wine. Within Bread, within Wine, is the mystery of Bone: Bone adorned with Flesh (178).

Later on Bone is told that “The Prisoner is consumed” (195). Another reference to Christianity, or to the pagan body that is sacrificed on the altar of colonialism?

Carnival Lord Death mocks justice with his “pitiless barter of the numb word, numb lips, numb ears and eyes.” Harris asks: “What sort of Justice did Carnival Lord Death administer? He was a just man: as just as any man could be in the Mask of Death. What are the foundations of Justice as the twentieth century draws to a close?” (70). We cannot read Jim Jones into the character of Carnival Lord Death, or into any of the figures that Harris draws. And yet we cannot read Jones apart from that character either. Life and meaning are greater than Jonestown, and yet Jonestown makes up that life and that meaning especially in a postcolonial context. “There was injustice everywhere,” writes Harris, “Fiction was truth. Fact was polished and manufactured into lies” (175).

No one can defeat the enigmas of life except for “pagan Christ,” or the “Christ-archetype,” according to Harris (104-105). “None can respond to your cry, the unspoken cry of humanity, save the Christ-archetype,” says Francisco Bone’s mentor Mr. Mageye (as in Magi). This Christ-archetype breaks the trauma of the grave and enables a remarriage to humanity. Mr. Mageye tells Bone

I do not envy you the task. It is a terrifying embrace to remarry a perverse humanity, a bitter task, a bitter threshold or re-entry into Jonestown. And yet it has to be done (104).

Harris writes that “frontiers are real until Love beyond all comprehension abolishes them” (150). Love, grace, compassion can heal and reconcile division. “We are assisted by powers we cannot define,” observes Francisco Bone. “We are tried by powers we cannot define. And their reconciliation is a crossing of frontiers” (151).

The sacred for Harris, then, is this border crossing by which the Enigma of Spirit, in his words, may be embraced, and by which “its relics [may] breathe again, live again” (151). These relics receive new life, new breath, through the recovery of the past. The task of Francisco Bone is the construction of a memory theater by which he can literally re-member the peoples destroyed by colonialism. It is a painful undertaking, and one which he repeatedly tries to escape.

What is profane is the erasure of the very existence of the peoples exterminated under colonial rule, and neglected by our forgetfulness. The original subjugation was a tragedy, but what is truly blasphemous is the total disregard we have for those who have died: the Arawaks, the Caribs, the slaves brought from Africa, the indentured servants enticed from India, and the people who lived and died in Jonestown. Yet because their names and memories have been effaced, “they are the anti-matter to the matter of historical realism,” in the words of Paul Sharrad.[xvii]

The irony of Harris’ concern for remembering the past is his utter disregard for the history or historicity of events in Jonestown. For him, Jonestown is purely metaphor and serves as the vehicle for discussing his larger project. But Sharrad says that historical realism only heightens the absence of former slaves and indigenous peoples.

It is left to the visionary witness to fill the void with a fiction of the imagination that will repopulate history with invisible presences never quite completely destroyed… This process no longer relies on documentary epic, official records or social realism, but on subjective, tentative deconstruction of dominating presence to show the shadows of reconstructions from absence.[xviii]

Harris uses Jonestown to develop his project of giving voice to those who have been voiceless. Paradoxically, in my opinion, he trivializes Jonestown by making it greater than November 18, 1978. His macrocosmic perspective loses the trees for the forest. Others disagree with me. Andrew Armstrong, for example, observes that “Harris thus reads Jonestown as a repeated slaughter superimposed on other narratives of histories and legends…” [xix] Armstrong claims that Harris is not denying the seriousness of events in 1978, but is instead providing “a reverential, even priestly recasting of the event through the shamanistic capacity of writing in order to tap the redemptive power of narrative.”

It is clear that Harris is attempting to reclaim the existence of the victims of colonialism by placing them within the structure of current events. The title of another novel, The Infinite Rehearsal, suggests Harris’ conviction that history replays itself again and again in bloody confrontations between the powerful and the powerless. For Wilson Harris our duty to remember, and not to forget, the victims of history is a sacred responsibility. It is only by fulfilling this task that love can begin to overcome death.


[i] John R. Hall, Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History, 2d ed. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1987, 2004); David Chidester, Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and Jonestown, rev. ed. (Bloomington, Ind.: University of Indiana Press, 1988 and 2003).

[ii] Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 114.

[iii] Audiotape Q 042, U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, accessed 23 February 2014.

[iv] Gordon K. Lewis, “Gather with the Saints at the River”: The Jonestown Guyana Holocaust 1978. A Descriptive and Interpretative Essay on its Ultimate Meaning from a Caribbean Viewpoint (Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: University of Puerto Rico, 1979), 30.

[v] Rebecca Moore, A Sympathetic History of Jonestown: The Moore Family Involvement in the Peoples Temple (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1985), 403-11. See also Duchess Harris and Adam John Waterman, “To Die for the Peoples Temple: Religion and Revolution after Black Power,” in Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America, ed. Rebecca Moore, Anthony B. Pinn, and Mary R. Sawyer (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2004): 103-22.

[vi] Wilson Harris, Jonestown (London: Faber and Faber, 1996).

[vii] Dominique Dubois, “The Redemptive Power of Bone’s Revisionary Fiction,” in Theatre of the Arts: Wilson Harris and the Caribbean, ed. Hena Maes-Jelinek and Bénédicte Ledent (New York: Rodopi, 2002), 197.

[viii] Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1966).

[ix] Yates, citing Cicero, De oratore, II, lxxxvi, 351-54, 2.

[x] Yates, 335.

[xi] Marina Camboni & Marco Fazzini, “An Interview with Wilson Harris in Macerata,” in Resisting Alterities: Wilson Harris and Other Avatars of Otherness, ed. Marco Fazzini (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2004), 58.

[xii] Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 111.

[xiii] Camboni and Fazzini, 57.

[xiv] Bhabha, 140.

[xv] Bhabha, 105.

[xvi] Wilson Harris, “Theatre of the Arts,” in Maes-Jelinek and Ledent, 2. Boldface type in original.

[xvii] Paul Sharrad, “The Art of Memory and the Liberation of History: Wilson Harris’s Witnessing of Time,” Callaloo 18, no. 1 (1995): 97.

[xviii] Sharrad, 97.

[xix] Andrew Armstrong, “Bloody History! Exploring a Capacity for Revision, Restaging History in Wilson Harris’ Jonestown and Caryl Phillips’ The Nature of Blood,” Jouvert: A Journal of Postcolonial Studies 6, no. 3 (Spring 2002): online edition.

(Rebecca Moore is a professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. She has written and published extensively on Peoples Temple and Jonestown, including her most recent book Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple (Praeger, 2009), and an extensive description on the Temple appears at the World Religions & Spirituality Project at Virginia Commonwealth University.

(Rebecca’s complete collection of writings which appear on this site are collected here. She may be reached at