Meditating on the Fate of the Earth and Its Species: Wilson Harris’ Jonestown

by Gentian Miller

(Ms. Gentian Miller is Senior Lecturer, teaching in the Faculty of Education and Humanities at the University of Guyana.)

“There’s a warning from which civilization recoils.
Perhaps it’s unable to read the signs” (Harris 1996:101)

With no claim to being a fictionalized account of the Guyana tragedy, Wilson Harris’ dream text, Jonestown (1996) works as a “theatre of the arts,” scathingly ridiculing the upsetting of the deft balance between humans and environment. The novel’s ghost narrator, Francisco Bone, a Lazarus figure acting as emissary, returns from the Jonestown dead to warn us of the fate we should avoid. Bone’s name also calls to mind the vision of dry bones coming back to life. Essentially Bone revisits the day of the dead, shoulders responsibility for the tragedy, and sets the stage for spiritual atonement for the trauma visited on the land. Bone therefore becomes the scapegoat for the healing of the land. When Harris’ Jonestown is read in consort with “The Music of Living Landscapes” (Harris, 1999), “Theatre of the Arts” (Harris, 2002), “The Argument to the Outboard Motor” (Walcott 2005), and “Subjection and Resistance in the Transformation of Guyana’s Mythological Landscape” (Jackson 2005), recommendations for the coexistence of humans and environment become available. Harris’ quantum fiction, Jonestown, therefore allows for a dispassionate assessment of what we are doing to the earth and its species.

The setting up of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, another Utopia, actually involved the conscripting of Amerindians to clear the forest and build “troolie huts” (Miller, 2016); a painful repeat of earlier times. And it is this enigma that causes Harris to strike parallels with Jonestown and other examples of community breakdown in Central and South America, such as the demise of the Maya; the disappearance of the Caribs; and the Amerindian massacre of the 1840s at Kukenam Valley, Roraima (Harris, 1996:4). As quantum fiction, Jonestown captures these “times” by way of Bone using a “Virgin Ship” to traverse boundaries of time and space, “as if blended times are the solid threshold and elusive foundations of holocaustic Jonestown” (Harris 1996:82). Harris’ placing of Jonestown in such a rotational matrix works well as it provides scope for examining the specific tragedy within the context of other such catastrophes.

Constructing another Utopia

Wilson Harris

Harris’ text criticizes Jonestown as a repeat of the colonizer’s historical abuse of people and environment; the trafficking in persons and the yoking of humans to the land. Incidentally, such treatment of humans continues today in different forms: investors displace Amazon Indians and Guyana’s indigenous people from their forest homes to make way for new roads, and hydro-electric dams; and mining and extractive industries pollute water and environment. As Harris notes: “The savage exploitation of rainforests continues in South America. Trees are felled like dumb creatures. River catchments are impoverished.” He also denounces the “deadly cyanide overspill [that] seeped into the great Essequibo River of Guyana in 1995” (Harris 1999:44).

For the settling of the Peoples Agricultural Project, Jonestown, more than half a million US dollars was paid for land leased near Port Kaituma, Guyana in 1973. Land was appropriated and a commune was set up, but the socialist dream of self-sufficiency at Jonestown quickly degenerated, and Jonestown became another concentration camp for trafficked Americans. It was quickly transformed into rape of the land and people, and large scale murder/poisoning by cult leaders. Not only is the poisoning of land ridiculed by Harris, but he also warns that the repercussions of our abuse of the environment are long term and will affect several generations. The exploitation of environment is abhorrent and the trafficking of persons is reprehensible.

In an interview with George Handley, Caribbean writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Derek Walcott, comments on the appropriation of land by explorers and investors. This amounts to a “violation of landscape,” Walcott says, a “desecration” of that which is considered sacred (De Leoughrey et al., 128). A counter-argument posited by Handley is that such appropriation brings much needed investment to poorer countries and is therefore considered as development. Development at such a cost is roundly criticized by Walcott as prostitution (DeLoughrey and Handley, 2005:129). Handley also asks, isn’t “human activity always, inevitably using nature in some way . . . result[ing] in a spiritual death of some kind” (129). Walcott correctly points out that the problem is that “the rhythm of the human body is never satisfied with its own pace” (DeLoughrey et al., 130). The impetus to discover, recreate, harness and exploit derives from human greed and the drive to control. Harris observes that “The grave is deep despite every carpet of leaves that Lazarus paints with music” (Harris, 1999: 44). Therefore, checks and balances must be put in place to avoid abuse and other violations of landscape.

Handley further asks about blame being attributed to “Western civilization . . . always [wanting] an Eden to go into,” and in responding to this, Walcott condemns the pioneering impetus that resulted in the removal of Native Indians from their land and also resulted in the trafficking of slaves. Walcott also ridicules the exclusion of such issues in America’s classic poem, Leaves of Grass (Walt Whitman 1885), where there is nothing about “slavery” and there is no mention of the “decimation of the American Indian” (De Loughrey et al. 132). Walcott asks how it could be okay to get soldiers to go into a territory that has Indians, shoot the Indians, convert those remaining, and say that “I am doing it for their good” (131). This narrative of the colonizer is repeated ad nauseam and continues to affect native peoples everywhere. Ridiculing such appropriation of land, Harris says, “the taming of the wilderness has always been an uneasy programme, however desperately pursued in the body of civilizations” (Bundy, 1999:44). The rape and poisoning of landscape at Jonestown is reprehensible.

Handley further asks about western civilization nurturing “the idea of land as virgin so that you can have ‘her’ first” (132). This angle is a dangerous one, since essentially it is a stereotypical construction of nature as female to be plundered. Walcott condemns the race/class/power dynamic of American investors seeking to build a hotel at the base of St. Lucia’s Pitons, but avoids speaking specifically about landscape as female to be owned, controlled, raped and plundered. The only time Walcott addresses the feminization of landscape is when he condemns both government and investors for making the Pitons prostitutes: “you are making them whores” he says (De Loughrey et al. 129). While Handley and Walcott address the colonizer/colonized/new-colonial construct which is at the heart of the matter, the treatment of landscape as violated female is glossed over.

Rape of nature and woman

In her essay,” Subjection and resistance in the transformation of Guyana’s Mytho-Colonial landscape” Shona Jackson criticizes the El Dorado myth as promoting the rape of land and woman, and ridicules the male desire to own, control and exploit (DeLoughrey et al. 2005). She criticizes the fact that in the hands of the independent Guyana government of the 1970s, the El Dorado myth morphed, developed a generative capacity, and became elemental to nationalistic discourse which coded “subjection and rape of the land” (De Loughrey et al., 88). Jackson also takes to task Wilson Harris’ representation of Mariella, the abused Amerindian woman, who in Palace of the Peacock (1960) is raped by Donne and made to be a guide for the colonizer and his crew. Though Donne’s rape of Mariella, who also represents the landscape, is historical fact, Harris may be held culpable since he too benefits from making the rape victim a spectacle where the victim seeks help but is “raped” by the male to whom she tells her story. The narrator says: “She lifted her dress to show me her legs. I stroked the firm beauty of her flesh and touched the ugly marks where she had been whipped . . . Her convulsive sobbing stopped when I touched her again” (Palace of the Peacock 1960: 21). Mariella repeatedly becomes the symbol of satisfaction for male appetite. Succinctly, Harris exposes this issue, but if there is any condemnation, it is not stated.

Notwithstanding this, Harris’ Jonestown condemns Jones’ rape of women, a characteristic feature of life at Jonestown, as the inexcusable. Bone, as mouthpiece, pronounces that “Jones was a charismatic pig” and “his brutal coercive intercourse with nature, with a woman he deemed a whore, with a goddess who said she pitied him, was visible when he held a gun to Marie’s temple” (125). The male framing of the abused woman, to justify his act, is also sanctioned here. “Coercive intercourse” is really a softened way of addressing rape, and maybe Harris is finding creative ways of addressing the issue. In another context, we get a reasoning narrator remarking that “Sex became senseless, predatory, the equipment of rapists” (Harris, 1996: 191). Sexual abuse, that was methodically used as a method of social control in Jonestown, is purposefully ridiculed in Harris’ novel, especially since it contributed, in no small way, to the dystopian nightmare Jonestown became.

Women as avenging furies

Harris’ theatre of arts does not only ridicule the rape of woman and landscape at Jonestown, but this text goes further to produce a radical reinterpretation of myths regarding women by representing them as transgressive archetypes. Instead of being trapped in the image of the goddess and good mother, mother goddesses are celebrated paradoxically as embodying womb that produces new life and as also as avenging furies. Moreover, in Jonestown, the abused archetypal woman – and by extension nature – transfigures to become “avenging furies,” or “killing goddesses” such as the Sirens, Circe, Kali and others who “pursue and punish doers of unavenged crimes” (Harris, 1999:226). A physical storm erupts in this novel, and this fury can be interpreted as nature’s response to the violation of landscape and life. Considering the generative capacity of the myth glossing over the rape of land and woman, Harris makes this myth morph further to undercut the traditional stereotype. Harris’ novel ridicules human greed and exploitation of all forms of life while attempting to create a Utopia, but added to this, Jonestown prescribes solutions to the problem.

Sacraments of subsistence

A certain interdependence with nature and humans is necessary and needs to be maintained. Not to be confused with the creation of Utopia is the healthy need for taking a retreat to experience renewal in nature. Derek Walcott (2005) validates this treatment of environment and says, “it is okay to find that place in nature and to renew oneself from time to time.” Harris’ poem “Tell Me Trees What Are You Whispering” also endorses the cherishing of environment. It speaks of retreating “far away from the haunts of men” to obtain spiritual nourishment (Seymour, A. J.: 1961). Modernist poet W. B Yeats also celebrated such treatment of nature, since he found it necessary to escape to “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” where one only needs “a cabin,” “nine bean rows,” and “a hive for the honey bee.” (W. B. Yeats: 1892).

Establishing communion with nature is good, but a certain practical balance must be achieved with humans and environment. Such a balance Harris describes as the “cultivation” of “a sacrament of subsistence” (Harris 1999:41). This pact is best illustrated by the Amerindians of Nappi, in Guyana’s Rupunini, who tell the story of Nabbi the village elder, who would punish the hunter who would shoot a fish but carelessly allow the fish to escape with the arrow. If the hunter does not retrieve that fish, his punishment is death. The sacrament of subsistence is one that allows you to take from the environment only what you need. Such sacraments ensure that a deft balance is maintained. Nabbi then is a protector of the environment, a shaman. “Among other things, shamanism is a hunter’s religion, concerned with the necessity of taking life in order to live oneself” (Vitebsky, 1999:11). The violating of such time-honoured principles inevitably results in disasters we court.

Recommendations are given by Harris in his essay, “The Music of Living Landscapes” to help us understand how we should treat landscape and life (Harris, 1999). Harris urges us to recognize that landscape possesses resonance, a resonance that is compared with orchestrated music. For this reason, we should not treat landscape as “passive furniture” (Harris, 1999:40). We are told that we should listen to the land and enter into conversation with trees, rivers, rocks, and other life forms. Harris encourages us to understand how “rocks dance” and “sing” as they provide a tidal function in rivers. Harris’ musical analogy extends to describe the “orchestration of species,” where harmony is achieved. Humans are encouraged by Harris to establish an affinity with environment, learn to read the signs, discern and learn to read the music. Harris also specifically re-defines landscape, asking us to consider the “measureless life of the earth” which takes in several geological ages. If we consider the example of the Kingston foreshore in Guyana, it is actually land reclaimed from the sea; the ironic equivalent is that of “swimming on dry land” (Harris 1999:174). We are infinitesimally small and our generation is singular in the grand scheme of things; therefore, we need to treat environment in a way that sustains life for the future.

Further to this, Harris gives us a cardiopulmonary metaphor that helps us to envisage landscape as a living entity. Harris says, “Living landscapes have their own pulse and arterial topography and sinew which differ from ours but are real – however far-flung in variable form and content” (Harris 1999:44). This metaphor that attributes human life to the earth emphasizes that all of nature is alive. This equation of “aliveness” is seen at work in Harris’ Jonestown where parallelism is struck with trees, cattle, and humans as tragic victims. Bone has a vision of “bodies piled everywhere from which [he] fled” but the images coalesce and the Jonestown dead in “GRAVE LAND” is paralleled with a “Sawyers pit,” filled with “sliced limbs and planks from fallen living body of trees” (Harris 1996:107). The images also displace each other, bringing into focus yet another life-form that suffers, animals. Bone says: “The cattle lay in the Jonestown Clearing on the Day of the Dead. Cattle have human faces . . .” (Harris 1996:36). This vision lets us recognize that humans are not superior to other species; every death diminishes environment, and we begin to ask questions about just recompense.

Crime and Punishment

The issue of punishment for crimes committed is also thoroughly addressed in Harris’ Jonestown. Bone questions the nature of moral responsibility while he is in “Limbo Land”, “GRAVE LAND”, running from and advocating for the death of the predator, the one responsible for the crime committed on Jonestown. Bone says: “I was driven to contemplate poisoning the air everywhere that he breathed, the seas and ocean and lakes and rivers in which he swam, the environments and places that clothed him” (Harris 1996:75). But even as Bone contemplates such course of action, Harris’ novel again moves beyond the individual case and giving attention to several. He reveals the irony inherent in the predator/prey archetype where the desiring of the death of another, the desiring of capital punishment for crimes committed, also turns the prey himself into a predator. Bone, in seeking revenge, desires the Predator’s death; this in itself is essentially a pre-figuring of what happens at the end of the text. Storm-tossed and hunted in limbo-land, Bone is rescued by the archetypal huntsman Christ, who throws a net to cover and catch him, thereby saving him from the predator.

At the end of the text, Native Indians subject Bone/Deacon/Jones to trial and judgement. Bone’s denial is strong since he claims not to be Deacon/Jones. But eventually, as sacrificial victim, he accepts responsibility, and they push him off the edge of the mountain, in Maya style. As readers, we hold our breath, satisfied with the punishment. However, while falling, Bone/Deacon/Jones is miraculously caught in the net of “music,” “the net of the Huntsman Christ” (Harris 1996:233). We are therefore given an ironic twist at the end of this text. With such a twist, Harris’ quantum novel provides a unique intervention and challenges the whole archetypal ritual of sacrifice. Jonestown takes the issue of human sacrifice – revolutionary suicide – back to the time of the Maya civilization where the gods desired pulsing hearts, ripped from sacrificial victims. “This horrible contradiction was the result of man becoming the toy of his religion,” says Harris (1967:190).

In this radical twist at the end of Jonestown, the Christ archetype overturns the demand for sacrificial offerings of animals or humans. The death penalty is criticized in Jonestown as “self-conscious and fashionable judgements” (29). Harris also points us to Kafka’s short story, “The Penal Colony,” where the death penalty is exposed as inhumane. Harris says:

In this work the visionary relinquishment of sacrifice is the theme which is grounded upon the wheel of humanitarian progress in terms of man’s all-embracing and gruesome self-torture. The work seeks to find its poise upon a life-line or age of cruel obsession which is now ending. Finis to torture. And yet something is bungled, even as the last executioner is self-executed. The ritual of self-sufficient justice runs to an untidy halt. (Harris, 1967:25)

Harris’ novel presents hope, rebirth and rejuvenation as superior to death. Salvation, redemption, and rebirth are intricately woven into the possibilities for healing of both life and land. There is the possible resurrection of Jonestown, as we saw earlier with the timber limbs becoming rejuvenated. Bone says: “The light of the incalculable glow and gloom of the Forest seemed to boil everywhere within the pit, within the noises of bustling Jonestown” (107). “One could hear through curtains of leaves, bustling Jonestown arisen from its grave,” says Bone (Harris, 1996:107). Lazarus, as representing rebirth, figures again and speaks of re-birth and renewal; this merges with the motif of the womb and the birth of a child which symbolizes hope and new life.

Harris’ Jonestown of course facilitates an investigation of the fate of the earth and its species. It ridicules the setting up of another Utopia and our attempts at taming the wilderness. It ridicules our rape of nature and woman. It provides recommendations on how we should treat life and land. There is the apocalyptic vision of the tragedy, but the text goes beyond the doom and gloom. This text gives us several possibilities. Contrasting the apocalyptic vision, there is the vision where “The trees however participate in a resurrection where with ‘living bodies,’ and ‘lungs’” (Harris 1996:107), they come alive. In addition, Francisco Bone tells us of his vision – that is similar to the vision of Ezekiel – where the bones “shone with the mysterious, alarming light of aroused flesh-and-blood, trembling flesh-and-blood wood that steamed, it seemed, as it arose from the pit” (Harris 1996:108). Certainly, re-birth, reanimation and renewal trumps death and destruction. And if one is inclined to believe that Harris is granting more importance to Christian doctrine, consider also that the Diwali festival of lights celebrates good overcoming evil; light dispelling darkness. Harris also has written in “The Uses of Myth” on something called “happy catastrophe.” On the point of the death penalty, incidentally, prisons have become re-imagined spaces in the Netherlands because the prison population has radically diminished. The obsession with cruel torture and death is indeed ending.


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Last modified on November 24th, 2018.
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