‘Fiction makes shit up; nonfiction fucks up what’s real.’
– Fred D’Aguiar, ‘Make it New (Again)’
In Memory of Wilson Harris 1921-2018
I would like to give special mention to the Tweedle Dum to my Tweedle Dee, and to Miss Cahill – I have my sanity to thank you for.
I would also like to respectfully acknowledge those who were lost on 18 November 1978 and those they left behind. My years of studying Peoples Temple have opened my eyes in unprecedented ways, and to them and those who continue their research and artistic efforts, I owe much of my own personal growth.
Considering that the Jonestown Massacre (1978) was the most deadly event in modern history – excluding wartime deaths and natural disasters, second now only to 9/11 – its cultural representation is significantly small. The multitude of voices of Jonestown, dead and alive, seem to have faded into silence rather than becoming a prominent feature in historical discourse.
Through analysing the two key pieces of literature in the first 20 years after the massacre – Wilson Harris’ Jonestown (1996) and Fred D’Aguiar’s Bill of Rights (1998) – this essay explores how these Guyanese writers comprehend the obliviation of Peoples Temple and history’s treatment of the events and its members. D’Aguiar and Harris endeavour to rehabilitate the memory of Jonestown and Peoples Temple not only into Guyana’s historical discourse but also into a temporally and spatially unlimited arena of discourse by appealing to the ‘universal dimension’ of the topic.
I will be augmenting my analysis with psychologist Carl Jung’s work, because his theories on the collective unconscious, archetypes and the process of ‘individuation’ resonate with the texts’ mission of re-remembering. Memorialisation is not confined to the individual. It is intrinsically bound to the collective and the environment to form a palimpsestuous journey that crosses cultural, spatial and temporal boundaries.
To recall the events that took place in the Guyanese jungle on 18 November 1978, is to partake in an act of un-forgetting. By the end of the day, five victims, including a US Congressman, had been killed on Port Kaituma airstrip, a woman and her three children had taken their lives in Georgetown, and 909 people lay dead in the Jonestown commune in the Guyanese jungle. The members of Peoples Temple had committed an act of ‘revolutionary suicide’ en masse by administering cyanide-laced punch following the leadership of preacher Jim Jones. The mass-murder suicide brought to an end Peoples Temple’s 23-year life as a prospering New Religious Movement (NRM) that incorporated pentecostal, socialist and communalist principles into its group philosophy. What is remembered about Peoples Temple tends to be confined to the violence of a single week in 1978 and harrowing iconic images of a patchwork of bodies piled in the Amazon jungle (see figure A). However, it tends to be forgotten that Peoples Temple ran the first interracial church in Indiana at a time when, ‘with few exceptions, blacks and whites did not share church pews,’ that they helped thousands of people through charitable aid and became a political force in the 1970s. The Temple’s exodus to their self-established commune, Jonestown, in Guyana in 1977 not only marks the beginning of the end for the Temple but, I argue, also signifies them stepping out of a nationalised historical discourse. They were stepping into a void of memory.
Figure A- David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images
Considering the magnitude of the Jonestown tragedy, there has been little canonical literary work produced, leaving Jonestown victim Richard Tropp’s beseechment in his last letter, ‘something must come of this,’ unfulfilled. I am choosing to focus on Wilson Harris’ Jonestown (1996) and Fred D’Aguiar’s poem Bill of Rights (1998) due to their 20-year proximity to the events, as well as each author’s shared Guyanese heritage. It is significant that what can be marked as the first piece of literature produced in the wake of the tragedy was Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky’s poem ‘Guyana,’ which was published in the New York Times on 2 December 1978. He writes that he does not see ‘hippies, not a group-sex cult’ but sees ‘the flame of Russia’s Old Believers’ in the ‘poisoned angels.’ It is the Temple’s affiliation with the Soviet Union’s ideological beliefs and their emigration from the US that I believe has led to the Temple and the Jonestown events being considered ‘un-American.’ Similarly, the Temple’s immigrant status and the colonialist ring of ‘Jonestown’ contributes to the events being shunned from Guyana’s cultural history. D’Aguiar and Harris are attempting to rehabilitate the memory of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, not only into Guyana’s history but into a temporally and spatially unlimited arena of discourse by appealing to the ‘universal dimension’ of the topic.
The first text I will be looking at is Guyanese-born author Fred D’Aguiar’s book-length poem Bill of Rights (1998). Born in London in 1960 to Guyanese parents and raised in both Guyana and the US, D’Aguiar’s multi-facetted nationality effectually emulates the Middle Passage and situates him assuredly in Gilroy’s ‘Black Atlantic.’ These hemispheric links are explored in the poem, reframing the ‘coloniality of Jones’ enterprise in terms of the long-term psychic damage it has done, and continues to do so, to individual subjects’ and, I argue, to historical memory. Guyana remains at the centre of D’Aguiar’s works. He often uses real historical events, such as the Zong Massacre (1781) in his novel Feeding the Ghosts, to, in his own words, “attempt to fill in the gaps of an eradicated past and to understand history through personality, through people and their experiences rather than by a rehearsal of dates and events.” D’Aguiar is overtly concerned with art’s role as ‘a moral, intellectual and emotional force’ that truly engages and grapples with the past, rather than merely reflecting on it. To engage with history is to be party to a form of resurrection.
Harris is far more studied then D’Aguiar, who serves as his contemporary. He has often resisted definition as a postcolonial author but, as Sara Upstone comments, it is exactly ‘his refusal to be defined by others as postcolonial, and his insistence instead on claiming a world history and culture as his own’ that makes him so relevant to postcolonial studies. Harris has been troubled by the role of art and literature in the face of terror and catastrophe long before the contemporary level of interest peaking in the post 9/11 world. Jonestown is situated in a context that transcends pre-prescribed temporal and spatial boundaries through the cross-blending of cultural references that places the events, and the trauma induced, in a planetary perspective. Harris overrides the notion of the Jonestown events being anomalous in history by offering an epic reading of violence as the result of striving for ‘unity of place’ – the archetypal longing which has shaped the Caribbean, and the wider world, as we know it. Both D’Aguiar and Harris’ work ‘free[s] language from conventional formulae’ in order to speak a universal truth. Harris’ unique ‘quantum fiction’ is challenging but serves as the ideal emphatic vehicle to ‘weigh’ ‘the lives and limbs of those who have perished […] as incredible matter-of-fact that defies the limits of realistic discourse.’
Literature is the ideal means of memorialisation, to ‘find the symbolic, the eternal,’ in the Jonestown events, as Richard Tropp bequests in his final letter written on 18 November. This project looks to explore how Harris and D’Aguiar are using their work to re-contextualize the Jonestown events in reference to Guyana’s history and its unique landscape. I will be augmenting my analysis with psychologist Carl Jung’s work because his theories on the collective unconscious, archetypes and the process of ‘individuation’ resonate with the texts’ mission of re-remembering. I must stress that I am not engaging with Jung from an essentialist standpoint, but aligning his theories to produce a cultural understanding of historical trauma and memory. The Temple’s philosophy of wanting to form a ‘collective consciousness’ and their belief that they were engaged in ‘a long search, a long struggle – going back not only in [their] own lifetime, but a long painful heritage’ resonates with Jung’s ideologies in reference to cultural memory. By placing the texts in this context and exploring their abstract interrogation with the past, the Jonestown events can be appreciated as a meaningful proxy for re-evaluating the nature and influence of the historical archetype.
In Fred D’Aguiar’s Bill of Rights, the Jonestown events are placed in the context of Guyanese history in order to re-assimilate them into cultural memory. Like Harris’ protagonist, Francisco Bone, the speaker in the poem has survived the mass murder-suicide and is working through his trauma through the act of writing, in this case through letters to his friend, L–. He is ‘feeling [his] way into the past, […] stepping through the mirror into the unknown,’ to engage with Jung’s archetypes of the ‘collective unconscious.’ The exploration and reformation of these archetypes is an attempt to rehabilitate historical events and experiences (such as the Jonestown Massacre, the slave trade and settler colonialism) into collective memory. The revisitation of the past, rather than being an act of mimesis, is a transformative process intent on healing the historical wounds inflicted by a culturally ingrained forgetting.
The speaker in the text is fragmented, conveying the dualistic experiences of Jonestown members and survivors and also those whose lives were irreversibly changed and fragmented from colonial contact. The internal division of the individual is a microcosmic exemplification of the disjointed foundations in cause and belief on which the Temple membership was built in the 1950s through the 1970s:
We are standing on the promontory
In Greenwich Park, facing an easterly
Direction, one foot either side the meridian,
A foot in each camp, as it seemed then:
Black and White, urban and rural, Salman’s
East, West, romantic and cynic rolled into one.
The speaker’s metaphorical division between the oppositions in the last stanza depicts ‘radical-dualistic’ nature of the Temple. This dualism is encompassing, temporally, ideologically and physically and is conveyed through the split nature of the poem’s form. Salman Rushdie’s East, West (1994) is a collection of short stories which question the notions of East/West and fiction/reality as opposing cultural constructs. The text’s reference here highlights the parallels between the doubled existence of Temple members, themselves effectively immigrants, and the ‘stereoscopic vision’ immigrant writers (such as Rushdie) were endowed with because of their duality. There were notable discrepancies in Temple members’ reasoning for joining the Temple; its religious, socialist and communalist aspects appealed to a range of individuals. By being part of the Temple, the individual existence is doubled. However, it is inferred that this duality can potentially allow for a depth and elaborated texture of vision and existence if empowered by the reformation of memory.
The fractured and de-linearised form of the poem represents these wider ideological divisions but also evokes the ‘internally divided, traumatized subjectivity’ of the self-alienated speaker. There is an irregular use of rhyme and meter throughout the poem, and most of the sections are split into two grouped stanzas per page, the second one being italicized. These sections can be read as a division between the conscious and unconscious. The prolific use of anaphora and the italicisation of the latter stanzas of each section makes them read as shamanistic chanting: ‘Holy Him holy me holy you/ Holy this holy that holy de-tarat…’ (6). However, this chanting is satirical, rather than transcendental, as the speaker’s anaphoras ‘attempt to create meaning from a scene that is meaningless to him.’ The repetitive nature of these italicized stanzas also reads like an indoctrination which, when reading them as outlets of the unconscious, represents an intrapersonal oppression akin to that recounted by many Temple members. This inhibition of self, in Jungian terms, prevents ‘individuation’: ‘the process by which a person becomes a psychological “individual”. That is a separate, indivisible unit or “whole.”’ Significantly, Jung asserted that this aspired synthesis of the conscious and unconscious cannot be relied on ‘an ideology or the state,’ as the speaker is attempting to accomplish through their commitment to Peoples Temple and its leader Jim Jones. It is only through the detachment from the Temple this ‘individuation’ can take place. This separation is marked in the text by the day of the mass suicide during which the speaker suffers from a ‘fever inside [his] marrow’ (100); his fever symbolises a purifying or refining process in which the speaker constitutes a crucible of sorts. Just as Jung draws on the parallels between ‘the series of changes described by the alchemists and the process of individuation,’ D’Aguiar employs this metaphor to depict his speaker’s symbolic renewal after the Jonestown Massacre. Notably, it is at this point of achieving a new relative wholeness of self that the italicisation of stanzas ceases. The poem’s form is symbiotic with the condition of the speaker’s progress towards ‘individuation.’
The speaker’s self is reduced to a mechanical status in the poem, symbolising his internal fragmentation which inhibits the process of ‘individuation’; his Uzi gun and his Seiko watch come to define him. His Uzi is pledged to both his lover, Tikka, ‘in suppliance to [her]… in slavery to [her]’ (29) and Jones also; the gun represents his loyalty, autonomy and masculine force. Both the speaker’s ‘timepiece and gun had ceased / Functioning’ (83) upon arriving in Guyana. It is as though while part of the Temple, the protagonist loses his autonomy and is extracted from linear time. This idea links to the earlier quote where the speaker imagines himself ‘on the promontory / In Greenwich park’ (101), the birthplace of time. He inhabits a liminal temporal space representative of the structure of ‘apocalyptic time’ Jones drew to found his apocalyptic heaven on earth, ultimately denying his followers individual subjectivity. For Jones, historical time was a bad dream from which death was the only means of escape, the Temple was simply ‘born before [its] time –‘ time was just as much the enemy as the US. It is ironic then that the Uzi and Seiko continue functioning upon Jones’ death. Coming back to the Jungian process of ‘individuation,’ Jung’s belief that ‘the unconscious has a Janus-face: on one side its contents point back to a preconscious, prehistoric world of instinct, while on the other side it potentially anticipates the future’ resonates with the speaker’s symbolic temporal liminality. Through the speaker’s reassimilation into linear time, represented by his Seiko watch working, he regains temporal subjectivity that is fundamental to the constitution of the unconscious and, thereby, to his progress towards selfhood.
The objectification of Temple members in the text is mimetic of the media’s. The New York Times, specifically, reduced the actions of the Temple members to brainwashed motions in order to provide a somewhat palatable explanation for the events in 1978. Perhaps even more representative of the media’s dehumanisation of Temple members is the employment of the zombie motif in the poem. Temple members are presented as living death-in-life existences: their ‘doubt’ is metaphorised as ‘worms [they] pull for each other from [their] flesh’ (20), creating an image of a community of corpses. The zombie is traced back to Haiti in the nineteenth century and finds expression in regions where imperialism and slavery incited discourses associated with compromised subjectivities. Parallels are hence drawn again between the condition of the Temple members and the post-slavery/postcolonial subject. Both are withdrawn from the collective; the post-slave subject does not resemble an individual in a naturally established group dynamic, nor, paradoxically, does the Temple member. Upon entering the church, inductees were encouraged to sell their belongings and turn their assets into the Temple and many changed their names – their selfhood was redefined by their membership in the Temple. The employment of this motif links back to the overarching principles of Jungian consciousness. Just as the zombie is a figure who is ‘unable to generate a consciousness of self,’ the speaker exists in a liminal space prohibiting self-realisation and fulfillment.
D’Aguiar effectively uses images and motifs that symbolise the paradox between destruction and survival (such as the Uzi and the alive-but-dead individual) which, according to Cathy Caruth’s theory on trauma and history, enables traumatic experience to be recognised. Resultantly, ‘we can also recognize the legacy of incomprehensibility at the heart of catastrophic experience’ – historical memory can remain authentic, and its ghosts humanised, without extraneous explication and unanimous understanding. Whereas the media retold events as both ‘burlesque and grotesque,’ in order for the critic to ultimately accept the events from a ‘higher synthesis,’ representative art conveys the open-endedness of the subject matter. In a very literal sense, the historical topic of Jonestown and Peoples Temple is incomplete. The final death count fluctuates when considering the five victims shot on the airstrip and/or the deaths of Sharon Amos and her three children in Georgetown following Jones’ radioed orders. To this day 412 bodies lay unnamed in a mass grave in Oakland, California. D’Aguiar’s poem ‘At the Grave of an Unnamed African’ resonates with this context, as the speaker addresses the dead saying ‘the barefaced that you’re unnamed feels like defeat.’ How can the nameless be properly remembered? Contemporary artists are taking this ‘defeat’ and being empowered by it. For example, Laura Baird’s tapestry depicting the iconic aerial shot of the Jonestown dead is deliberately unfinished to signify that the story of Peoples Temple will never be concluded (see Figure B). Bill of Rights and Harris’ Jonestown reflect this sentiment through their use of non-linear form and dreamscape; both texts have a sense of being unfinished. Hena Maes-Jelinek deems the last line of D’Aguiar’s sequence, ‘the authorities are none the wiser’ (133) anticlimactic, and I agree. However, it is this inconclusiveness specifically in reference to hegemonic knowledge that truly conveys the historical status of Peoples Temple and the events in 1978. As Rebecca Moore reflects in her keystone piece of literature: ‘understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple means appreciating that some questions have no answer.’ Bill of Rights is not attempting to validify the facts and figures in relation to Jonestown, but explores ‘the symbolic [and] the eternal’ in the events, just as Richard Tropp implored in his last letter on 18 November 1978.
Figure B- Laura Baird’s Jonestown Carpet
D’Aguiar explores the symbolic resonance of Jonestown and the Temple by utilising mythological figures and symbols. The employment of these mytho-historical motifs entwines the history of Peoples Temple with Guyana’s history and links to the establishment of Jung’s work on ‘archetypes.’ It was Jung’s knowledge of comparative religion and mythology which led to him discovering what he believed was ‘a myth-producing level of mind which was common to all men’: the collective unconscious. The mythological motifs or primordial images which constitute the collective unconscious are ‘archetypes.’ These ‘archetypes’ are not inborn but rather originate as ‘deposits of the constantly repeated experiences of humanity.’ Their engagement in the speaker’s sequences places the Jonestown Massacre in Guyanese culture and history rather than the historical limbo it traditionally tends to occupy.
The figure of ‘Old Higue’ is manifested to parallel ‘Holy Him’ (Jones), ‘Holy Pontius Pilate’ and ‘holy Judas Iscariot’ (6), thereby satirizing Jones’ self-appointed position as a prophet. Allsop’s Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage define ‘Old Higue’ as:
A legendary evil, wrinkled old woman, who hides by day, but by night sheds her skin which she carefully hides in a jar, then becomes a ball of fire roving in the air to seek out and light upon sleeping victims, esp babies, whose blood she sucks[…]
The affiliation of Old Higue to Jones represents the well-documented perfidiousness of Jones’ personality and also links to the 304 children who were deemed as murdered on 18 November. Cannibalism is a theme in both Bill of Rights and Jonestown as the texts explore the traditions of native Caribs – Carib notably being the epistemological root of ‘cannibal.’ The image of the ‘Carib bone flute’ is employed by the speaker when he describes the bodies in Jonestown as ‘A thousand flutes piled on top, / Each other’ and during his encounter with the griot where he forges a flute from the bone of a canary (14-15). Bone flutes were made from the bones of Caribs’ dead enemies, creating ‘a bridge upon which the ghost of music runs […] between the living and the dead.’ The metaphorisation of Jones’ victims into flutes beckons a re-communion with the dead and further connects the Jonestown killings with the Renaissance colonial conquest and its victims.
The most resonant myth employed in reference to Guyana’s cultural history is that of El Dorado. Jonestown is described as the speaker’s ‘budding El Dorado’ (30); the allegory is used far more by Harris in Jonestown. Conquistadors, such as the infamous Sir Walter Raleigh, believed Guyana to be the location of the mystical city of gold, and it henceforth became an ideal site of pilgrimage. I will speak more about the myth of El Dorado in the next chapter. However, I wish to draw on Maes-Jelinek’s closing line of her essay, ‘The Myth of El Dorado in the Caribbean Novel’ (1971), as it resonates with Jung’s aforementioned interest in alchemy’s relationship with psychology. Just as Jung visualises the pursuit to ‘make gold,’ to effectively ‘perfect everything in its own nature,’ as paralleling the process of ‘individuation,’ Maes-Jelinek remarks that ‘each man carries in himself his own El Dorado.’ The evolution of the El Dorado myth from a conquistador lure to an instrument in the exploration of man’s consciousness is expressed not only by the speaker in Bill of Rights but in the lives of Temple members also. The Temple’s pursuit of paradise on earth is being explored by D’Aguiar and Harris through engagement with archetypal images specific to Guyanese history. This exemplification of the ‘repeated experiences of humanity’ echoes Richard Tropp’s words in his final letter: ‘We merge with millions of others, we are subsumed in the archetype.’ For D’Aguiar, the Temple and the events in Jonestown are being married to a collective of events and archetypes to reposition them in cultural memory.
Figure C- The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (16th century)
The symbolic use of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl links to D’Aguiar’s engagement with the Guyanese landscape in the poem, specifically in regards to boundaries and rivers. Quetzalcoatl translates to ‘the feathered serpent,’ a combination of snake and eagle that simultaneously represents the contrast and unity of supreme divine being and earthly mortality (see Figure C). This juxtaposition of spirituality and transcendence with the matterful vitality of the snake, which ‘rejuvenates itself by sloughing off its skin,’ symbolises ‘the resolution [to] the painful problem of human duality.’ Quetzalcoatl is an envisionment of a world where the human soul can enjoy the divine presence and transgress boundaries between the earth and sky, material and spiritual. In Bill of Rights the speaker appeals to Quetzalcoatl as he laments:
These are bodies lying on mud floors
In huts; on the grass; around dead fires;
In final embraces throughout
The neat wooden walkways;
On every clearing and from now on
By the banks of the Potaro, the Mazaruni,
Essequibo, Corentyne, Demerara.
At Timehri. Quetzalcoatl,
Tell me this is not so. (113)
The speaker expresses that the Guyanese landscape will remain permanently scarred by the deaths in Jonestown, as it was by colonialism. Serpents, and therefore Quetzalcoatl, are often associated with water and rivers as is Guyana – the root-meaning of the Amerindian name ‘Guiana’ is ‘land of many waters’ (see Figure D). The insinuation of the speaker that the Temple’s dead will ‘from now on’ remain static at the banks of Guyana’s rivers symbolises the liminal space the Jonestown dead occupy in historical memory. The plea to Quetzalcoatl can also be linked to the Jungian notion of structure. The Aztec God epitomises the interrelationship between symbolic opposites (earth/sky, mortal/divine) which Jung believed could come to represent a ‘total world-view.’ Ultimately, the employment of the mythological figure of Quetzalcoatl evokes an archetypal longing for border-crossing and harmony, both physical and spiritual, that is denied to the Jonestown dead and thereby to Guyana as a nation.
Figure D- River map of Guyana
The prominent motif of boundaries and divisions that is emulated through the landscape in the poem works to entwine the events in 1978 with the wider cultural history of Guyana. Fiona Darroch writes that Guyana is a land shaped by moments of exchange and often violent contact; the landscape is defined by boundaries and historical moments not nationally felt as its own, the Jonestown events included. In a 1998 interview, D’Aguiar expressed his interest in using rivers to talk about place: ‘See the Thames down there. It divides London right down the middle like a backbone. Talking about the Thames is a way of talking about London.’ The speaker is repeatedly referring to Guyana as a country through its rivers; in the very first stanza he says he has come ‘From hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, / To the Potaro, Essequibo, Demerara’ (1). Falling between the Amazonian basin and the treacherous Atlantic, Guyana is a physically-liminal space that is paradoxically vast, and for the majority uninhabitable, whilst being geographically defined by movement and negotiation (see Figure E). Beginning with Columbus, then Dutch and British colonists and the ensuing arrival of slaves in the seventeenth century, followed by the influx of indentured Indian labourers in the nineteenth century, Guyana’s borders have consistently been encroached by alien peoples. The settling of Peoples Temple is a repetition of these foreign settlements. The speaker’s statement that ‘Yoknapatawpha county,/ [Guyana] was not’ (9), referring to William Faulkner’s fictionalised county draws on the irony of mapping borders on the landscape. When on top of one of the Roraima mountains, the speaker says:
Look as I did
There was no sign of the border
Bush was unbroken
Rivers twisted to the four winds
A sudden shower
Crossed the entire vista
In one sweep of shadow and light
Covering all things equally
With its mineral bath (91)
The weather and the landscape do not conform to man-made boundaries. The synthesis of ‘shadow and light/ Covering all things equally’ again links to the Jungian principles of opposites and equilibrium. Bone expresses a similar sentiment in Jonestown as he recalls ‘Commonsense engineers’ deciding in the eighteenth and nineteenth century that the coastlines were ‘deemed flat’ and ‘as a consequence they smothered the breath-lines in a living landscape’ (172). Man’s contrived manipulation of the landscape is construed as a stifling, life-taking act. It is insinuated that the transgression of established boundaries, in reference to both the landscape and historical understanding, will ultimately allow for the ‘total-world view’ for which man should strive.
Figure E- Population density map based on 1960 census.
As discussed, Guyana as a nation has been historically defined by movements of people pursuing the archetypal longing for the creation of space. In Bill of Rights, the emigrant Temple members are paralleled to both colonial settlers and maroons (fleeing slaves) – groups exemplifying the desire for space-making. Each form of emigration is similar in that marronage depends on ‘distance, movement, property, and purpose, at work at every scale of politics’ – like colonialism. Likewise, Wilson Harris’ expression in his 1949 article, ‘The Realities of Trespass,’ that colonial processes are always marked by ‘an anguish of longing’ for the ‘past security’ of abandoned homelands, resonates with the ambitions of fleeing slaves in the Caribbean and Peoples Temple. In the poem, the members of Peoples Temple clear the land and find themselves at odds with the hostile jungle, much like colonial settlers and maroon communities before them. The speaker writes:
To wave a mosquito from the forehead
Takes more effort than to clear this forest
Clear this continent of all its wood
Burn that wood into smoke into cloud
Spread that cloud over the entire planet[…] (5)
Pexa notes that the figuring of this clearing process so early in the speaker’s Jonestown experience suggests the ‘fragility’ and ‘belatedness’ of Jonestown’s neo-colonial presence. The colonialist concept of Guyanese land being ‘terra nullius,’ or ‘land belonging to no one,’ is very much emulated through the Temple’s ease of and disregard for clearing the land. There is a foreshadowing of doom with the infernal imagery of ‘smoke’ and ‘burn[ing]’ and the all-consuming nature of the cloud ‘over the entire planet’ links to the exponential growth and destruction of colonial influence in history. This apocalyptic imagery enforces what Pexa labels as settler-colonial apocalyptic time which consigns its inhabitants to a ‘permanent state of in-betweenness’ that prohibits traumatic healing – a liminality I have previously discussed. That the Temple members’ ‘feet are winged by [their] faith,’ as ‘[they] rip those vines from their roots’ (20), reads as an allegory for the Christianity-driven Spanish Conquistadors and British colonists who attempted to destroy Guyana’s cultural ‘roots.’ The desire for new space is rooted in human consciousness and underscores the Caribbean’s colonial past and the Temple’s exodus to the jungle. Through the excavation of this desire for virgin space our relationship to the past, and the trauma inflicted by it, can be rehabilitated in cultural memory.
The clearing of land parallels the experience of colonial settlers and maroons, as does the way in which the Temple members find themselves at odds with the alien jungle landscape. The Guyanese jungle is a destabilising presence that is emulated in the bodies and psyche of the speaker and Temple members. The speaker suffers from ‘the runs and chigoe’ (a South American flea) and has ‘a fungus culture between [his] toes’ (8); the Temple members are an alien species out of their natural habitat. Incessant rain and the pervasive wetness of the jungle ‘rusts [the] joints’ (6) of Temple members, linking to the mechanisation of their bodies, and render their matches ‘moist and useless’ (11). The Temple members’ literal saturation with water is a metaphor for their faith, often depicted as a flame, dwindling as the reality of their failing enterprise dawns on them. A symbiosis between the landscape and the individual body is established in the poem to instill how memories of colonialism haunt the body of both people and the landscape. In D’Aguiar’s witty and visceral style, the speaker muses that talk of a ‘Bill of Rights for these Isles of Isthmus’ would do as much good as one for ‘the Islets of Langerhans’ (76). ‘Islets of Langerhans’ are clusters of cells in the pancreas, a biologically redundant organ, and ‘Isles of Isthmus’ can refer both to the geographical feature of a strip of land linking two larger pieces of land or to the same structure of the tissue in anatomy. By anatomising the landscape in this way, Guyana is further construed as a liminal space, macrocosmically representing the Temple’s indistinct status as a pseudo-sovereign socialist/totalitarian state. It is this liminality, I argue, that establishes the body and the natural world as ‘sites of both departure from and return to the historical dimension.’ Through the re-exploration of man’s historical relationship with the establishment of space and place, a symbiotic healing of the collective unconscious can occur.
In his 1998 lecture, ‘Made in Guyana,’ D’Aguiar says: ‘The Guyanese interior was bruised by the Jonestown settlement but it is now overgrown and returned to the wild. The scar is not physical in terms of landscape – that has healed – but human, and psychic.’ His perception of the land being psychically damaged enhances the symbiosis between history, landscape and the body in Bill of Rights. The traumatized subjectivity of the speaker is emulated through the environment, showing how the events in 1978 are intrinsically bound to Guyana’s history. In Wilson Harris’ 1973 lecture ‘Magical Realism,’ he recounts his experience of the Guyanese landscape:
I was aware of an enormous difference between the landscape of the coastlands and the landscape of the interior. I had penetrated 150 miles. It seemed as if one had travelled thousands and thousands of miles, and in fact have travelled to another world, as it were, because one was suddenly aware of the fantastic density of place.
Harris’ description of a contrasting exterior and interior is reminiscent of the principles of the human consciousness. When considering the multitude of rivers in Guyana also, the country comes to resemble a symbolic representation of the human mind. This symbolism further enhances the relationship between the speaker’s trauma and the trauma of the landscape. Both human memory and landscape are crucial vehicles of memorialisation within the collective unconscious.
D’Aguiar’s linking the Jonestown events to previous historical events and mythological motifs specific to Guyana enforces Cathy Caruth’s statement that ‘the formation of history [is] the repetition of previous violence.’ In the same way the mind repeats trauma in an attempt to understand it, the landscape falls victim to the historical re-enactments of the archetypal longing for the excavation of virgin space. Bill of Rights is drawing on the historical void left after the imposed ‘forgetting’ of Peoples Temple and Jonestown. For Caruth ‘forgetting is […] a necessary part of understanding’ for both the individual and the collective. This desire to forget the Jonestown commune and shun them from Guyanese history is evidenced by Prime Minister Forbes Burnham’s statement published in the New York Times on 3 December 1978, where he states he ‘wants to close the incident of Peoples Temple’ and labels the ‘cultists’ as ‘an American problem.’ In many ways, the Jonestown Massacre was a nationless tragedy. By reclaiming ownership of the events in 1978, as part of both Guyanese history and the speaker’s identity, D’Aguiar is accomplishing the synthesisation of disparity that Jung deemed as necessary for individual and collective wholeness. Through the re-engagement with the past in a way that is not purely referential, the trauma symbiotically experienced by the individual and the landscape can be rehabilitated and reformed.
The mere existence of Bill of Rights, in relation to its subject matter, is testimony to the text’s intentions in reforming human memory. The traumatic Jonestown experience of the speaker is hemispherically linked to Britain and the United States in order to reframe the coloniality of Jones’ enterprise, whilst being entwined with Guyana’s cultural history. The long-term psychic damage done, and continuing to be done to individuals in reference to both 18 November 1978 and to colonial subjects, is explored symbiotically by emulating their temporal liminality in the discourse of history. D’Aguiar’s writing shares in Jung’s belief that spatial and temporal categories imposed upon reality skew an authentic re-telling. It is through the re-interrogation of these categories that the historical archetype will be reformed in the collective unconscious.
Wilson Harris’ Jonestown (1996) is a transformative vision of spatial and temporal boundaries which seeks to rehabilitate the Jonestown events into historical memory through the remedic act of writing. Through engaging with archetypal and mythological images, the individual’s relationship with collective cultural memory is being confronted and reformed. Like many of Harris’ protagonists, Bone is at a turning point in his history, and his complexity, variety and possibility of response embodies that of the Guyanese people in relation to their past and future. His exploration of remembrance has wider implications than just memory of Jonestown, and even the Americas’ postcolonial condition – he is uncovering the human-wide potential of a cryptic un-forgetting. Lost histories emerge in this cross-cultural and hybrid space. In a world caught in a cycle of repetitive violence, a new future can only be born through journeying inwards and backwards, forming a different relationship to the past traumas that wound us.
Harris’ use of Francisco Bone’s letter to W. H. (Wilson Harris), as a ‘preliminary capsule’ (5), to introduce the Dream-book is a metafictional device which foregrounds the creative process involved in both writing and reading the text. In the letter, Bone says he ‘feared to write in – and be written by – a demanding book that asserts itself in Dream and questions itself from time to time’ (4). The Dream-book is construed as a force within itself, led by instinct and ‘broken archetypes,’ highlighting the organic nature of Bone’s imaginative process as he works through his trauma. Harris has often described the creative process as an encounter, ‘as an endlessly gestating bridge between the unconscious and consciousness in both writer and reader.’ When considering the unconscious, as Jung does, as in potentia, ‘the thought we shall think, the deed we shall do, even the fate we shall lament tomorrow,’ this metaphorical bridging has a temporal dimension. According to Bone, it is through ‘explor[ing] overlapping layers and environments and theatres of legend and history that one may associate with Jonestown’ (3). The history of an event or an individual cannot be understood in reference only to itself. By creating this metatextual dimension to the text, Bone is emphasising that it is the creative, organic process – rather than the explicated result – of the reconfiguration of the past that catalyses remembrance and reconciliation.
The use of dreamscape and quantum narrative techniques in Bone’s Dream-book defies Western literary tradition and denies a simple reading of the text. Although the use of dreamscape further fictionalises the Jonestown events, I agree with Andrew Armstrong in that the abstract narrative reads as a reverential and shamanistic recounting of events, thereby emphasising the redemptive power of narrative. Rebecca Moore draws on the effectiveness of using Mikhail Bakhtin’s literary theories to analyse Jonestown’s representation in the arts. The application is natural as Bone explicitly and repeatedly uses the term ‘carnival,’ a Bakhtinian term, to convey how he is using a polyphony of voices, archetypes and cultural references to defy literary convention and amplify ambiguity. The centripetal forces at work in reporting on the Jonestown events, mainly the media and apostate accounts, focus heavily on the negative aspects of life in the movement and fail to place 18 November 1978 in a wider historical or cultural context. Therefore, the centrifugal forces in the form of artistic dialogues, such as both Bill of Rights and Jonestown, reactively engage with Jonestown as subject matter in a manner that is not purely referential. Bone is creating ‘new architectures out of the rubble of tradition’ (84), both in regards to his historical excavation and his digression from traditional narrative techniques. In his suspended state, Bone becomes ‘a vessel of composite epic, imbued with many voices, [he] is a multitude’ (5). The epic is composite, because different temporal dimensions ‘come together and make a bridge through the rupture in time’ – again there is this idea of ‘bridging,’ connecting formerly disparate, but co-existing, features of the self through narrative. These disparate elements of self, the constitution of the ‘multitude,’ can be read as the ‘broken’ archetypes Bone engages with in the Dream-book. Jung partakes in a similar practice in his essay ‘Confrontation with the Unconscious’ (1962), where he ‘translate[s] [his] emotions into images’ and ‘allowed the inner images and voices to speak afresh’ in the recital of his dream. The dream constitutes an essential part of the imagination. Only through the engagement with the imagination can the facets of the self and the collective unconscious be interrogated to reform human memory.
The Dream is the most fertile landscape for the appearance and interrogation of archetypes, bringing with them a certain influence of power by virtue of which they exercise a numinous effect. For Bone, ‘All archetypes are broken in their intercourse with humanity. Broken yet active…’ (115). In the same way trauma needs to be ‘worked through,’ as do these ‘broken’ archetypes for an individual and collective healing to take place. Many Jungian archetypes are engaged with in the Dream-book; I will look at the Virgin, Predator, and Phantom limb specifically. These broken archetypes become a re-visionary dynamic in which both Bone and the self-conscious reader immerse themselves in within the ‘womb of space and time.’ This way the ‘foetal shapes’ (5) of the future, which present renewal and potential, may be fully realised. Bone states that ‘memory is archetypal’ and ‘is shared between fleshed bone and twin-skeleton’ (110). When reading his twin-skeleton as his subconscious, this joint affiliation with archetypal memory accentuates the importance of archetypal revisioning in order to achieve individual wholeness and reconcile with past trauma.
The Virgin archetype is inherently broken in that, in its wholeness, it implies ‘intercourse shorn of violence’ with the womb-body of nature and reality – a concept brinking on the inconceivable. However, the archetype is still active in the fact that it is entertained by religious myth; in its brokenness is its influence. The Dream-Book contains three Virgins: the woman who dies in Jonestown; Bone’s Mother, Marie; and Deacon’s betrothed, the Virgin of Albouystown. All of the Virgins are at once concrete women but with partial faces of the original Virgin/Mother archetypal image, making their wholeness unfathomable and their translatability fluid. An example of this fluidity of re-visioning is in Bone’s specific use of Marie Antoinette: ‘I glimpsed that precipice in the torso of the Virgin of Jonestown, another Marie Antoinette in the Carnival theatre of sorrowing mothers and peasant queens, and milkmaids, of dispersed humanity around the globe’ (220). Wendy Knepper views Marie Antoinette as a figure on the thresholds of life/death, as she was renownedly merciless to the poor in France, however, was herself swept up in the mercilessness of the French Revolution and violently executed. A historical interconnectivity is identified by highlighting the complex links between terror, sovereignty and slavery; nurture and violation are closely related, as exhibited by the Temple’s fate under Jones’ leadership. The traumatised subjectivity, both as a Jonestown survivor and allegorically as a postcolonial subject, refracts vastly different perspectival viewpoints, creating connections through history and memory. As a vehicle for exploring the endless repetition of violence in history, the ungraspable Virgin archetype, with its allure of ‘intercourse shorn of violence,’ probes at the fertile potential of futurity following communion with the past.
The Predator archetype is predicated on natural balance, just as the predator-prey relationship is fundamental to existence, as is the shadow self, with its composite archetypes to the wholeness of the individual. As Anthony Stevens states: ‘the shadow tends to appear as a sinister force or threatening figure . . . there is usually something alien or hostile about it, which gives rise to feelings of distrust, anger or fear.’ In Jonestown the Predator is encountered both as a force, with the plotting of history being said to have ‘a predatory coherence or closure that reduces communities to a desert’ (218) and also as a more material figure that the Huntsman tries (and succeeds) to capture in his net. Jones is one of these materialisations of the Predator. Bone is filled with the desire to ‘destroy [the predator] by hook or by crook’ (75) but he comes to realise ‘[the Predator’s] end could prove to be [his] as well’ (99). To kill the Predator would be suicidal and a succumbent to ressentiment, thus allowing the shadow self to dominate his being and denying traumatic healing. For preventing this self-destruction, Bone thanks the huntsman for ‘saving [him] from madness, from being devoured by an appetite for violence that grows everywhere’ (76). Contrastingly, Jones, in both the text and in reality, can be viewed as having been ‘devoured’ by this ‘appetite for violence.’ His attempt to destroy the ‘Predator,’ for him the political jurisdiction of the US, lead to him metaphorically ‘poisoning the air everywhere that he breathed’ (75), thereby exchanging in the very cycle of violence he claimed to abhor. Through the confrontation and ultimate reconciliation with the Predator archetype there is, again, a prospect of the repetitive violence of history being annulled.
The archetypal image of the Phantom Limb resonates in Bone’s Dream-book because Bone has effectively survived death; the missing of the tragic event compounds the trauma. Medically, Phantom Limb is the name ‘applied to the sensation or impression that one still has a limb that has been amputated.’ In Bone’s case the sensation concerns the fingers he lost to Deacon’s bullet. Bone often feels his ‘phantom fingers’ move and entwines their image with that of Anancy, ‘the cosmic Spider’ (205). Anancy is a half-man, half-spider of West-Indian and Caribbean folklore. Harris employs him as a powerful symbol standing for the subversive potential of a re-visioning of absolutes, which is centred upon a transformation of space. Bone is engaging with this ‘transformation of space’ through a ‘limbo dance’ throughout the text, referring to the Middle Passage dance of dislocated slaves. In his book ‘History, Fable and Myth’ (1970), Harris says the dance provides an ‘activation of subconscious and sleeping resources in the phantom limb of dismembered slave and god.’ Like the slaves of the Middle Passage, Bone is metamorphosing into Anancy in order to re-enact the tragedy of dismemberment and dislocation, relevant to both the trauma of the Jonestown Massacre and to the Caribbean’s colonial history. This re-memberment is also one of language and narrative form; the association of his lost fingers with his mother’s worn down fingers serves as a counterpoint of wound that breaks open the closed structure of plot. Bone writes that ‘All wounds, all stigmata, carry a silent and invisible counterpoint in the orchestra of ages’ (96) – the basis of the Phantom Limb archetype is the remembrance of something no longer existing in the present that yet exists tangibly in history. The body and the psyche symbiotically bear the burden of spatial and temporal displacement. However, Anancy’s physical re-memberment of Bone represents a possibility of psychical re-creation and renewal through identification with the spirits of place in Guyana.
Similarly to D’Aguiar, Harris laces his narrative with mythological and religious figures and stories of the Caribbean and Guyana. The use of these mythological motifs entwines Guyana and the Caribbean’s historical narrative with that of the Jonestown survivor, re-assimilating the events into historical discourse. The figures of Anancy the spider and Papa Legba share the ability to transform space in the service of the colonised, a possibility that is at the foundation of West-African folklore. Their linking with the Indian goddess Kali, who can manipulate time with her many arms and ‘wheel of time,’ provides the potential for a new kind of hybrid space. Kali further figures as the translation of indentured peasants from India to Guyana, just as Anancy ‘arrived in the Guyanas with African slaves’ (200) – they represent the cross-culturality of Guyana’s colonial past. She symbolises the same duality as the Predator and the Virgin, in that ‘she is both the fall of the golden age and the promise of the golden age to come.’ Bone writes that the indentured Indian peasants brought Kali to Guyana ‘in the hope of finding El Dorado and renewing the potency of gold’ (193). As mentioned in my first chapter, Guyana was believed by Conquistadors to be the home of El Dorado, the city of gold. The myth of El Dorado continually haunts the Guyanese imagination because of the existing deposits of gold and the country’s geographical complexion. However, for Guyanese writers, such as Harris, the search for El Dorado implies more than a remembrance of the past; the sentiment upon which the myth is grounded is the archetypal foundation of colonial history. For this reason, the myth of El Dorado evokes the notion of creation and is as much a tool for looking into the past as a means to contemplate the future.
The Jonestown events are the ideal platform for re-prioritising the sacred as the means of remembrance. Harris’ cross-cultural re-mythologising of history undermines the authoritarian values veiled in standard literary form and explores an organic means of re-establishing man’s relationship with the past. Jung labelled the ‘myth-producing level of mind [as] common to all men,’ insinuating thus that we are all indeed part of what Harris coins ‘the great chain of being.’ Bone insists that through being ‘tested’ by ‘broken archetypes,’ we may ‘begin to endure the mystery of love that prompts us to see ourselves differently within a whole universe […] [and] within the holocaustic, nuclear games we play with one another’ (166). The roots of history’s violence, construed differences between man, are shown to be superficial. Temple members were shunned from any nation’s historical narrative: America wanted the bodies of ex-patriots buried in situ, Russia refused the Temple’s financial bequest to the Communist Party, and the Guyanese government was keen to close the ‘incident of Peoples Temple’ swiftly in 1978. Harris is re-assimilating the events and the ghosts of Temple members into shared collective memory. Whereas the centripetal forces of discourse construed the life and death of Peoples Temple as a morality play, which pitted the forces of good against the forces of evil, Harris is delineating these oppositions. The blending of cross-cultural mythologies transforms their numinous potential on the individual. Just as ‘no one culture has the monopoly on truth,’ the composite history of Jonestown and Guyana cannot be confined to a hegemonic, linear discourse.
The revisitation of the past through ‘memory theatre’ is essential for the traumatic recovery of Bone, as an individual, and Guyana, as a de-colonised nation. Through the reworking of the past, the present and future subjectivity of both Bone and Guyana can be re-compromised. Bone exhibits symptoms of survivor’s guilt. He questions ‘Why me? Why did I survive?’ and mentally re-enacts his own death: ‘I sought a pleasant hole to simulate the grave into which I should have fallen on the Day of the Dead’ (4). Cathy Caruth analyses the behavioural repetition of trauma and draws on the paradoxical effect of life becoming ‘an endless testimony to the impossibility of living’ following the survival of death. The kind of grief Bone is tackling, like that of real Jonestown survivors, is complex in that the ‘holocaust’ was ‘self-inflicted’ (3). There is to this day ambiguity as to how many of the 909 deaths in Jonestown were suicides; the deaths of the 279 minors are considered murders by researchers, and there is contention as to how many victims were possibly injected with cyanide, due to only seven bodies being officially autopsied. Bone’s fictional trauma reflects the lack of closure felt by real survivors. He retreats into the past with the ‘bag of Nemesis’ over his head to relive the events of his mother’s violent death, re-experiencing another traumatic event in his life. The ‘bag of Nemesis’ can be interpreted as representing Bone’s psychological burden. It is physically preventing him from having the ‘total world-view’ that the reconciliation with the past and foregrounding of archetypal symbols can potentialise. His trip back to this memory calls attention to the terrors and traumas of colonial life that continue to haunt life in Guyana, enhancing the link between the trauma of the Jonestown victim/survivor and the postcolonial subject. This sentiment is echoed by Jonestown survivor Laura Johnston Kohl’s statement: ‘Yes, we are the survivors. But we continue to be the victims too.’ For the survivors and Bone, ‘the past […] always inhabits our present reality’ (209). It is through imaginative processes of memory and writing that we can alter our perspectival lenses through which we experience our present reality, and create the basis for a re-invigorated future.
Bone marries his own traumatic past with that of the Americas’ in order 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). He draws links to the Temple’s decision to choose the heart of the Guyana jungle to other ‘doomed colonies, cities, villages, settlements, ancient and modern’ (15) that had come before. As mentioned in the first chapter, Guyana and the Caribbean have been shaped by the repeated movement and alteration of communities. Bone evokes memories of the lost civilisations/communities of the Maya, Teotihuacan in Mexico and the Caribs. Poignantly, he also recounts ‘the amazing story of the Arekuna Indian Awakaipu’ who ‘persuaded representatives from many Indian peoples to offer themselves as a sacrifice at the foot of Mount Roraima in order to recover an “Enchanted Kingdom’’’ (4-5). The tale resonates with the events in 1978 and parallels ancient sacrifice with Jones’ warped notion of Black Panther Huey Newton’s term ‘revolutionary suicide.’ The highlighting of these paradigms in Caribbean history enforces Bone’s statement that the repetitive cycle of brutality produces ‘hierarchies in which each theatre of inhumanity is placed on a scale to measure which is less horrendous or more hard-hearted than the last’ (21). This evolving ‘scale’ can be interpreted as a palimpsest. Jonestown is superimposed on the hieroglyphic texts of Amerindian civilisations, writing over attempts of painful forgetting. However, in his construction of the text, with its broken, mutating archetypal images and culturally diverse mythological motifs, Harris also imposes a hieroglyph on his contemporary narrative. The text becomes an ‘inverse palimpsestuous journey,’ evoking anamnesis rather than amnesia.
Like D’Aguiar, Harris accentuates the importance of man and history’s relationship with the landscape. It is through the shaping of relationships between man and man, man and his history, and man and his environment that the potential of the collective unconscious can be realised. Bone construes the Guyanese landscape as a palimpsest of sorts, writing that ‘long-vanished texts secrete themselves everywhere in Aboriginal, fragmented theatres of place, in living (sometimes mutilated) landscapes, riverscapes, skyscapes, apparitional at one level, concrete at another’ (10). The landscape tells as much of a story of the individuals inhabiting it. Harris’ appreciation of the landscape’s narrative potential originated in his role as a government surveyor; in his essay ‘The Music of the Living Landscape’ (1996) he writes:
It seems to me that, for a long time, landscapes and riverscapes have been perceived as passive, as furniture, as areas to be manipulated; whereas, I sensed, over the years, as a surveyor, that the landscape possessed resonance […] the landscape, for me, is like an open book, and the alphabet with which one worked was all around me.
Bone’s sentiment towards the landscape reflects this notion of the land ‘possessing resonance.’ He feels the need to ‘revisit the scene and the entire environment’ and ‘learn the foundations of doomed colonies, cities, villages, settlements, ancient and modern’ (170) in order to come to terms with his trauma. The symbiosis created between the body of the people and the landscape, as seen in Bill of Rights, represents the haunting memories of colonialism which are being explored through the proxy of the Jonestown events. Through the exploration of the landscape and its history, in relation to the fact that ‘the future is a sliding scale backwards into the unfathomable past’ (5), a spatial and temporal connectivity is created that defies the absolutism of human discourse. By bringing the Guyanese landscape, and all of its composite symbols, into the forefront of Bone’s exploration of consciousness, Harris is defying the modern trend Jung labelled as the ‘impoverishment of symbols.’ To engage with the symbolic resonance of the landscape is to recognise the interdependence of the mind, the body and its environment that constitutes the collective unconscious.
For Harris, the individual, the landscape and the past are intrinsically bound in cultural memory. Through creative and imaginative processes, such as writing and dreamscaping, both Bone and the landscape’s trauma is counter-actualised to potentialise an alternative present-future. By re-assimilating the Jonestown events into the socio-cultural discourses of Guyana’s past, the individuals lost and those who survived (like Bone), are given the resting place that they were denied in actuality in the plain of collective memory. Harris shows that a faithful history can be possible by indirectly telling. In a postcolonial, post-war world, past trauma must be re-memorialised to ultimately ‘test every fragment of biased humanities [and] break the void’ – closure is unattainable and in that there is hope of historical justice.
Literature is the ideal means of memorialisation, to ‘find the symbolic, the eternal,’ in the Jonestown events, as Richard Tropp bequests in his final letter written on 18 November 1978. Through the creative processes of writing and reading, traumatic experience, in reference to both Jonestown and wider histories of colonialism and the slave trade, can be re-perceived in order to alter and re-invigorate our relationship with the past, present and future. The metatextuality of each of the texts exemplifies the need to reclaim individual and collective trauma because, as Caruth writes, like history, trauma is never simply one’s own. The individual cannot heal without the healing of the collective, the relinking of ‘the great chain of being.’ The committal of both texts to a non-linear abstract discourse repudiates the realist style Harris characterized as ‘the fiction of persuasion’ and thus deconstructs the Western formulations of cultural memory. The texts concur with Jung’s belief that the spatial and temporal, the physical and mental, were human categories imposed on reality that convey an inauthentic truth. Through the transcendence of these boundaries, the historical archetype can be reformed.
Both D’Aguiar and Harris infer that history can be remade through atonement with the landscape. The bodies of the individual and the landscape are in-extractable from one another and both ensuingly become a palimpsest of sort, with layers of text and history layering to composite identity. The writing of memory as a palimpsest, in reference to both the individual and the environment, can be read as rewriting over attempts of painful forgetting, rather than an intended erasure of the underlying past. Louis Simon writes that, for many commentators, ‘Jonestown, as much as Dachau and Auschwitz, will pass into history […] as a macabre example of the deep satanic evil that lies beneath the thin veneer of civilized habit in organized society.’ While this may be the case in terms of the centripetal narrative forces on the topic, Jonestown and Bill of Rights have paved the way for exploring the resonance of the Temple’s existence and memory, rather than just its demise. These texts stepped into a sparsely populated literary space and slowly they are being joined by thoughtful literary works, such as Leigh Fondakowski’s play The People’s Temple (2005), which are grounded in survivor stories. Rebecca Moore notes that ‘the focus has shifted from dead bodies and Jim Jones, to witnesses – living and dead – and to individuals who were committed to the dream of a better life for everyone’: the palimpsest is evolving. A future fruitful direction of research could be examining the more contemporary pieces that have been produced since terror has come to the forefront of society’s anxieties post 9/11. The importance of memory has become paramount in modern culture.
These texts embody the absent death certificates, gravestones and names of many of the Jonestown victims. They come to constitute the Carib bone flute that features frequently in the texts, likewise becoming a ‘vessel’ of ‘mutual spaces’ in which to commune with the dead. On the day of his suicide Richard Tropp wrote: ‘Words fail.’ D’Aguiar and Harris seem to concur with this statement through their writing style. However, their works accentuate the potential of literature as a means of memorialisation. By delving into the multi-faceted layers of the collective unconscious and reconfiguring spatial and temporal boundaries, they lead us on an inverse journey that encourages a revisioning of history and its relationship to selfhood. Jonestown is utilised as means to un-forget the past that ultimately defines our existence in the present.
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(Tayla Boote is studying a Graduate Diploma in Law in Leeds, UK whilst maintaining a love of literature and a fascination with anything surrounding the enigma that is Peoples Temple. She can be reached at email@example.com.)